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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Lost Art of Listening

I grew up in a family that argued, often, passionately, and about anything. Most of it was friendly banter, only occasionally did tempers run warm much less hot and having been schooled by this behavior I learned to hold my own on such contentious issues as whether the ziti marinara was better at Scarola’s or Manny’s. You might think this a trivial matter; indeed most family debates tended to be, but (true story) an uncle once dunked me headfirst in a chocolate cake for suggesting that the Civil War officially ended at Appomattox; on my birthday no less and I didn’t even like chocolate cake. What did I know, I had no idea he felt so strongly on the subject.

In a more serious vein, all that tussling about every little thing did teach me one tremendously valuable lesson and that was to listen more and talk less. There isn’t much of that going on these days regardless of the topic. Listening affords a number of benefits, not least of which is staying above the fray long enough to actually hear what people are saying, and sometimes if you listen long enough they’ll talk themselves right out of the very opinion they started with. Most people really don’t listen—they talk, they respond, they cut each other off and they hurl sanctimony and invective around with careless abandon. What they don’t do is ever really hear what the other person is saying and that is a shame—especially if you don’t happen to agree with them. When you don’t listen several things happen. First and foremost, there is no dialog just opposing speeches. And the emotional content—i.e. the volume and language—becomes the point of disagreement rather than the substance.

If one remains quiet, listening and thinking about what has been said before responding the chances are very good that whatever response you offer is likely to be far more thoughtful and far less emotional—which is good because taking the emotion out of the conversation allows it to breathe. Quiet begets quiet and a thoughtful, respectful rejoinder that acknowledges what someone has said goes a long way toward setting the tone for reasoned exchange. Sometimes I will use a little narrative device by prefacing any comment with, “so what I think I am hearing you say is…..”, and follow that with a recap of what I’ve heard. Just acknowledging that you heard someone and giving them an option to make any correction helps—and surprisingly sometimes they may soften or modify their tone or content as a result. It doesn’t cost you anything to do this and let’s be frank, it is pretty rare that any conversation is going to result in changing someone’s mind. I am not saying it can’t happen but I can say that no argument ever resulted in an Aha moment that brought people to their collective senses.

Politics and religion of course are subjects which never fail to incite serious, highly emotional debate. When I encounter someone with a good head of steam on and a desire to ram their opinion forcefully down everyone’s throats I generally dissemble unless I must rise to the occasion. I like to offer thoughts that arise from facts, although it is often the case that such dialog tends to be data free. Even then I avoid any tendency to try to win—prove the righteousness of my view or point out the limitations of the other person’s perspective. It is wasted breath. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, never argue with an idiot. He’ll just bring you down to his level and beat you senseless with his stupidity.

Listening has other virtues as well. A friend of mine was the Executive Director of a non-profit who was regarded by his staff as possessing an almost Sphinx-like calm and inscrutable demeanor. On several occasions I witnessed staff members approach him with an urgent issue. As they babbled on about this and that he remained silent, not even a head nod acknowledged agreement or a frown signaled aversion. Eventually the staff member would reach the end of their spiel and await some response. When none was forthcoming, they would fill the silence with their own thoughts on what should be done or simply grow quiet and depart thinking that they had been out of line to have brought up the issue in the first place. Either way the issue got resolved without my friend having done a thing. It was a remarkable thing to behold and only years later, having used this technique myself on a few occasions, I learned the truth. My friend was hard of hearing. He was reading lips and listening as closely as he could but often missed important bits and so he adopted a listening stance as a coping mechanism. When he found that it worked so brilliantly, he decided that he’d keep up the front.

Listening as an art has largely disappeared from our society except in very rare instances such as courtrooms or parliamentary settings where some rule of order maintains a thin veil of civility. Watching actual Parliamentary proceeding in the UK is always good for a bit of high dudgeon and carefully crafted slick burns. Likely it was better in Churchill’s day when there was an element of wit, but even in these times it is far more entertaining than watching our own legislators act out on C-Span. I think our politicians are so bad at the art of debate because they are so used to speechifying and tweeting—in other words holding forth uninterrupted by the inconvenience of any disagreement. Some social media—I hesitate to name them—have taken the art of active deafness to a high plateau while others permit debate in the form of moderated commentary. Well perhaps commentary is dignifying things. The only benefit to written dialogs is that one can conveniently ignore them, but of course a large number of malcontents seem to have nothing better to do with their time than to fashion provocative memes, outrageous taunts and illiterate tirades.

If I could introduce one useful alteration to the manner in which all social media work it would be to add a deliberate time delay so that no one could respond to a tweet, post, vlog, blog, anything at all for a period of 4 hours. Yes, it would slow things down horribly and that is just the point. Can you imagine having a raging argument by telegram? By adding time for listening as well as opining, the outrage might not lessen but at least the responses would be better edited. Which reminds me of an infamous exchange between Churchill and his good friend George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had a new play at the Drury and sent a telegram to Churchill inviting him to attend "opening night and bring a friend if you have one." Responding to this jibe, Churchill responded. "Cannot make opening night, will come the second, if you have one." Now that's better than any tweet I've ever read. It seems a bit of time makes for a brilliant exchange. Next time you are tempted to react to someone's braying commentary, just listen, take your time and rise to the occasion.

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