To Listen is to Love
Erich Fromm (1900–80) was a famous German psychoanalyst, philosopher and social critic. His best-selling work, The Art of Loving (1956,) has been translated into more than fifty languages and has sold than thirty million copies. Fromm argues that one of the deepest human desires is wholeness and unity. Consequently, humans seek to overcome their persistent sense of separateness by finding love—that profound experience of belonging and unity that still makes allowances for individual identity and expression.
According to The Art of Loving, one’s character orientation and social outlook depend greatly on one’s ability to experience meaningful loving relationships with others. The principal responsibility in practicing the art of loving is overcoming one’s narcissism, which Fromm argues is tantamount to cultivating objective reality and embracing the spirit of generosity—doing cosmic good:
Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.
The Art of Therapy is the Art of Listening
For Fromm, the first duty of love is paying attention to others—to listen and to understand. His less-popular, but equally noteworthy The Art of Listening (1994) explores listening as an act of love. Based on the imperfectly-edited transcript of a 1974 colloquium on psychoanalysis, The Art of Listening presents Fromm’s therapeutic method of dealing with the emotional distresses of people through listening.
Psychotherapists endeavor to listen non-judgmentally, understand keenly, and frame questions that will assist their patients to work out what they should do to change their lives. Exploring this nature of communication between the therapist and his patient, Fromm explains that the therapist must offer himself as a thoughtful individual specifically trained in the art of listening. Fromm identifies listening as “an art like the understanding of poetry” and offers six guiding principles for mastering the art of selfless understanding:
- The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
- Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
- He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
- He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
- The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
- Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.
Even though The Art of Listening focuses on becoming a better shrink through listening, there’s much in this excellent book by way of techniques, dynamics, and mindsets that make for the most favorable listening relationships in life, as in therapy.