AUSCULTATIO: Listening Beyond the First Layer


“Habituating oneself to careful listening from the heart is essential for leaders. It conveys a functional benefit,
reliably leading to a timelier solution, a better articulation of an idea, an unexpected discovery.” 

A few years ago, a team member and dear friend gave me a book I’ve since returned to countless times (leaping right past the substantive stacks of books on my desk and nightstand), and from which I’ve transcribed words that persist to this day on Post-it notes and the whiteboard in my office. What is this wisdom-laden text? A deceptively short volume of 85 pages – The Rule of Benedict for Beginners by Wil Derkse. I am referencing it here because I have found Derkse’s simple illustration of Benedictine tenets to be surprisingly applicable to professional life, trials, and growth. And as is characteristic of all of us “always teachers at heart,” I wish to share this lovely thing I’ve discovered with friends. 

In broad strokes, Benedict’s directives are three:

  • Stabilitas – steady and faithful commitment to the community of which you are a part
  • Conversatio Morum – willing engagement, daily and permanently, in personal growth and improvement
  • Obedientia – the art of careful listening and active response from the heart

For this last category, Derkse is wise to clarify that theconcept of obedience here is not one of servile, blind, or false execution of orders. He points out that the word itself “is derived from ob-audire, a strengthened form of audire (= to hear, to listen).” Further, much attention is paid to the form of listening: “As the eye catches light and the ear sound, so one who listens with the heart tries to catch meaning to discover the sensible in a situation.” As such, “the opposite of this virtue/action is not disobedience, but absurdity, from absurdus, to be stone-deaf to something.” (27)

Since I was first exposed to these ideas, I’ve spent many an hour mentally circling around this third rule – obedientia. This is partly because I am fascinated and delighted by Latin roots and origins of language, and partly (all right, mostly) because the discipline of listening carefully has been an area of growth for me in both my personal and professional life. This may seem a strange weakness for a classical musician, but I have always found greater ease in the kind of active listening required in playing music. Dialogue characterizes both playing (music) and speaking, but with one critical distinction: In music, the different parties – say, flutist, violinist, cellist – engage simultaneously in conversation, listening and sensitively responding not alternately, but (usually) concurrently. This musical "magic” doesn’t translate to the spoken word, however. When the “back and forth” happens too quickly, or at the same time (for example in a heated argument), the effect is the opposite of careful listening and sensitively responding. Effective listening in spoken conversation firstly requires silence on the part of the listener – perhaps here is where one starts to appreciate the connection to humility and obedience.

Habituating oneself to careful listening from the heart is essential for leaders. I come closest to understanding and practicing this mode of true listening when reflecting on another description of the Benedictine rule offered by Derkse – obedientia as auscultation. Auscultation is the process a doctor uses to listen to our heart and lungs, with a stethoscope. Done well, the medical professional perceives not only the heart rate, but also the micro-sounds of valves closing, the whoosh of fluid, and any odd clicks/murmurs. This is a practiced aural act which hears beyond the first or even the second layer of what is being "said.” I’m not suggesting that our listening should be presumptuously diagnostic or therapeutic. Rather, it’s a skill and virtue which aims for a clear and thorough understanding of whatever is being described or discussed. Achieving this richer clarity conveys a practical/functional benefit in virtually every instance (presumably to both interlocutors) – reliably leading to a timelier solution, a better articulation of an idea, or an unexpected discovery – all valued ends in our work.

Perhaps more distinctively valuable in our project of liberal education and human community, obedientia is a discipline that requires, and thus expresses humility, charity, and love. Leadership is a humane and human endeavor. I have found that committing to this way of attending to the colleagues we serve, is as close as we come in conversation to playing music together.

Kiann Mapes is the Senior VP of Talent for Great Hearts. Prior to this, Kiann taught extensively in music and sciences at the high school and university levels. In her “other life,” Kiann is an early music specialist, performing baroqueflute with various Texas ensembles. She lives in Grapevine, TX with her husband and two daughters, a dyed-in-the-
wool Great Hearts family.