A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:
The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening. Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?
As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model. But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all. It’s speaking.
It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises. But it’s communication all the same. The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room. Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means. It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience. The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking. “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.
Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless. In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates. But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech. Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.
That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic. Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else. But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.