Are you a good listener? I’m not. Today I found myself reading and replying to an email while someone was telling me a long story on the phone. I thought I had been tracking both conversations, until at some point I realized that I hadn’t heard anything the caller had said. I was too embarrassed to ask her to start over, so I just mumbled my way through the rest of the conversation as if I knew what she had been talking about. According to some people, we would be better off if we all became good listeners. “Deep listening” is the key to getting along with others, getting along for the sake of a greater good. This is especially important when communicating with those who don’t share our values, political views or religion.
I followed a link today to an audio interview of a philosophy professor at the University of San Francisco named Jacob Needleman, who wrote the book, “Why Can’t We Be Good,” where he argued that we have seen “a degradation of our ethical life.” He said that one thing that would help us fill the gap between our ideals about what is good and our actions is to become better listeners. He talked about looking for “a bridge, where the ancient values and ideas about human beings and the universe could throw light on actual, contemporary, concrete problems of our culture and our personal lives. I had no idea that it was right in front of me, a kind of practical step that we can all take to becoming the moral beings we wish to be. And that bridge was in my classroom with the work of listening to another person. Listening becomes a deeply moral action. And this is something we can all practice…And that requires that we step back from our own ego, from our own opinions, and let the other person in. Not to agree or disagree, but simply to let their thought into my own mind. And when I step back from myself in that way, I begin to be a much more moral person. There’s a relation that establishes with another human being.”
I looked for more sources on the topic of listening and found that many wise people had something to say about it. Examples from Thinkexist.com are
“To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.” Chinese proverb
“The first duty of love is to listen.” Paul Tillich
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Ernest Hemingway
Even though it is unlikely I will ever have to negotiate a Strategic Arms Treaty, it might be a good idea to become a better listener, not only to avoid the embarrassment of being caught not listening, but also to learn more, and to encourage others to do the same. My hope would be that everyone in the medical profession be a good listener, as well as teachers, bureaucrats, politicians, one’s bosses, and all parents. If we all talked less and listened more, it might be possible to end the rancorous debates we hear in Congress and during political campaigns, though probably not. It would take something more drastic, like lipectomies, to achieve that goal.