I told someone recently that my job required active listening. He looked at me with a blank expression.
“What?” he asked. And he wasn’t kidding.
That little misfire of communication inspired today’s column.
With all the attention focused on the lack of civil discourse in modern society, it’s worth remembering that listening is an essential component of effective communication. You know what I’m talking about if you have ever willingly engaged in a conversation, only to find yourself on the receiving end of a 45-minute monologue.
I wish I could remember the name of the cartoonist who elegantly captured this predicament by drawing a couple sitting in a restaurant, with one person saying to the other, “Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?”
I think of listening as a three-step process.
Step 1: Hear.
Step 2: Consider.
Step 3: Respond.
A breakdown at any step can interfere with genuine communication.
Even as the explosion of technology in our society affords people more opportunities than ever to shout their opinions from the mountain tops, it doesn’t require reasoning — or taking responsibility for one’s comments. Anonymous streams of consciousness may be poured into the blogosphere in their raw and unfiltered form, and, in my judgment, this creates an atmosphere of self-important chatter that short-circuits listening.
Hear. Consider. Respond.
A collective failure to function at that basic level deprives all of us of opportunities to apply our combined wisdom to compelling problems.
An inability to listen also prevents us, as individuals, from truly knowing each other and being known.
I recall a friendship with a law school classmate whose views and experiences were markedly different than my own. Our caffeine-fueled discussions about the legal issues we were studying at the time were animated — sometimes even passionate. These were things we cared about.
I’m sure we each harbored the secret ambition to convert the other to our way of seeing things, and, sometimes, one or the other would make a point that would win the day.
But the real gift of that friendship was the freedom to rigorously test our ideas through meaningful debate. We honed our skills of persuasion and taught each other how to use language like a scalpel, rather than as a cudgel.
Because that relationship was important to both of us, we maintained a level of personal and professional respect that allowed us to confide our disappointments and challenge each other with some of our edgier theories.
Think about discussions you’ve had that have mattered to you. When the concerns that you’ve aired have been heard, you have had the feeling that those concerns mattered to someone else.
Am I right?
Communicating well is a way to connect with other people, and, if you feel out of practice, a chance to reconnect is on the way.
Nov. 26, is the National Day of Listening. That’s the day after Thanksgiving — and not by accident.
You are more likely to sit down with seldom-seen relatives on Thanksgiving Day than just about any other day of the year. Why not celebrate by steering the conversation to include their stories and memories of important events in their lives?
What was your life like before the war? What was my great-grandfather like? How did you meet grandma? Why did you leave the town where you grew up?
National Public Radio’s Story Corps provides tips online for recording and preserving interviews in connection with the National Day of Listening. Even if you choose not to record your conversations, asking a few open-ended questions is likely to be entertaining, if nothing else.
And, maybe you’ll learn something.
Kiki Keizer, a lawyer working in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.