Synchronized Listening

Part 2 of 3 in the series LISNing

All speech has rhythm. Conversation is also subject to the principles of rhythm, with fascinating implications, as demonstrated by the work of Dr. William S. Condon, of Boston University School of Medicine:

In order to more accurately see the subtler aspects of communication, Dr. Condon filmed numerous conversations, and then analyzed the films at very slow speeds (1/48 second). By breaking simple words into fundamental units of sound (such as the word “sound” being s–ah—oo—nnn—d), each lasting a fraction of a second, he found that the body movements of both the listener and the speaker were in precise synchrony with the voice at all times that communication was occurring. These movements might be a raising of the eyebrows, a tilt of the head, or a flexing of a finger. With each new set of sounds, a new set of movements would occur. What’s most amazing about this is that the listener’s movements were entrained to the speaker, rather than occurring as a delayed response. Dr. Condon makes this comment:

“Listeners were observed to move in precise shared synchrony with the speaker’s speech. This appears to be a form of entrainment since there is no discernible lag even at 1/48 second . . . It also appears to be a universal characteristic of human communication, and perhaps characterizes much of animal behavior in general. Communication is thus like a dance, with everyone engaged in intricate and shared movements across many dimensions, yet all strangely oblivious that they are doing so. Even total strangers will display this synchronization . . . .”

He further describes how the content of the message only is absorbed once this synchrony occurs.

Until reaching that point, there is often misunderstanding.

During the sixties, George Leonard and Dr. Price Cobbs, a psychiatrist, conducted weekend interracial encounter groups, where antagonistic participants were initially not in sync with their speech rhythms. Participants were encouraged to pour out their resentments, fears, and anger.   At a certain point in the process they would find the rhythms approaching fever pitch, with everyone talking and shouting and stamping their feet, trying to be heard.

The psychiatrists observed that near the end of the section, some of the shouts and curses began turning to laughter. Then a strange thing happens: the entire group suddenly stopped, then began again, then stopped, then began and each time more quietly until all reached a perfect rhythm.

After this crisis the group resumes with a new tone of tenderness and ease. “It’s as if the pendulums of understanding were swinging together, the heart cells beating as one.”

It was not until the group entered resonance that deep communication really began to occur.

Perhaps communication is really a rhythmic dance rather than a stimulus-response phenomenon, as we usually think of it.

The listener is not reacting to the speaker but is instead resonating with the speaker when communication is truly occurring.

Further studies by Dr. Condon examined the behavior of disturbed and autistic children in regard to this auditory rhythm entrainment. The children showed a time-lag response between the listener and the speaker, and acted as if they were responding to an echo of the original sounds. Their micromovements put them out of harmony with the world around them, a probable cause of the feeling of alienation and confusion that characterizes their condition.

George Leonard, in his analysis of this data, concludes that “Our ability to have relationship depends on our ability to be able to listen with synchronicity.“

Anodea Judith PhD
See also: The work of Initiatives Of Change
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