Listen like you mean it

Don’t just wait for their mouth to stop moving.

Photo by Malte Wingen on Unsplash

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and you know they aren’t listening?

Not only can you tell they’re not listening, it’s that they have something they really, really want to say. It’s killing them, in that moment, that you are in the middle of your sentence. And they’re sure — positive — that if you simply just stopped and listened to them and their thought in that precise moment, surely you’d understand why you might as well just stop talking altogether and let them have the floor.

Annoying, isn’t it?

It’s easy to tell when this is happening, mostly for the fact that everything is communicated on the face. There’s a certain look that is common to people who are merely waiting for your mouth to stop moving, so that they can speak, versus the look one might have — thoughtful, contemplative — which would otherwise tell you that they are ruminating upon and weighing what you are saying. That they are developing a measured and appropriate response to your speech.

I know this facial expression well because I myself ran around with it on full display for longer than I care to admit.

By contrast, the wisdom in keeping silent is perhaps older than the art of rhetoric itself. “He who keeps his mouth and his tongue,” the Hebrew scriptures tell us, “keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23, RSV). “We have two ears, but one mouth; therefore we should listen more than we speak,” says Zeno of Citium, a Greek stoic. And then there’s the famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

Three cultures, three different periods of time. The wisdom, it seems, persists. Perhaps it is ingrained in us. Very well then.

And, by the way, “keeping silent” and “listening” here does not simply mean ceasing uttering. Unspoken (ha!) in this admonition is that we are indeed replacing our desire to talk, pontificate, preach, boast — to demonstrate how qualified and smart we are — with something else entirely: a desire, in fact, to hear and understand the other in place of whatever logorrhea we were intending to let seep.

There is required in this exchange — that is, speech for silence — a definite humility. In agreeing to this trade, we are fundamentally putting ourselves second to the person with whom we are conversing. We are showing them deference. We are saying to them, “I want you to speak. And I will take this opportunity to listen and reflect on what you are telling me.” And we must again make the point that this is not just waiting for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so that we might ourselves take up the task.

James Altucher posted an article on LinkedIn yesterday entitled “The Only Ten Things That Have Given Me Success.” Under the section subtitled “Be Stupid,” he wrote the following:

I don’t know anything.
I want to learn from everyone I meet. So I ask questions. Dumb questions.
“Explain it to me like I’m a three year old.”
This is the only way to learn. Only way to listen.
Only way to build trust with someone who wants to, desperately wants to, explain his or her ideas to you so they can trust you and work with you.
Give them that gift of listening.

There’s an interesting point here. Listening builds trust. I’d recombine our points this way:

  1. Listening requires humility.
  2. Humility — meekness, vulnerability — breeds trust.
  3. The more we trust someone, the more willing we are to talk to them. Because we know they’ll really listen.

Sure — there are people who, given the chance, would step on your neck if you offered them even a split-second of vulnerability. Let them. Those people have always existed and will always exist. But they are not most people. Most people want genuine connection. Most people want to trust and to be trusted. Most people want to listen, and to be listened to.

This brings me to another thought I was having, based on an earlier post. It ended with John Barlow’s “Twenty-five Principles of Adult Behavior,” the third of which has proven to be a continuing struggle for me:

Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.

This is a tough one, and so applicable to our present time. What is Barlow really getting at? I think he’s asking us — actually, requiring us — to assume positive intent on behalf of the “other.”

Who is this “other” person? A friend? Someone with whom you have a political disagreement? Have they wronged you in some way? Is this someone you hate, or merely an opponent? An annoying coworker with whom you must interact, but don’t want to?

We are reminded again of the Bible, this time of the New Testament: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward have you?” (Matthew 5:44,46, RSV).

I believe you could interpret this fairly as an invitation to simply be nice — even to love everyone, if that’s possible — “everyone” being, certainly, those you call friends, but, importantly, also those with whom you have that political disagreement, or who have wronged you in some way, or are your actual enemy, or opponent, or annoying coworker.

So you are presented with someone whose motives, you believe, are less noble to them than yours are to you. How do you effectively bridge this gap? I’m not totally sure — and maybe it’s truly insurmountable. But surely listening in the way we’ve talked about it here would be a good start.

Of course, the verb listen, like love, is one of those action words that requires an object. One cannot listen or love in a vacuum. Sure, you can listen to silence or love someone who doesn’t love you back. Nevertheless, these actions in their truest and purest form must have for themselves an object toward which to direct their energy.

And what of speaking, then? And our friend from the top of the page who’s just waiting for our mouth to stop moving? (Again — annoying, isn’t it?)

I leave you with a reminder in the form of an anonymous quote, which, incidentally, was also cited in the Altucher article I linked above. It’s good advice:

Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you. Listen in such a way that others love to speak to you.

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Nicholas Fitzgerald is the producer and host of ‘Join Me, Won’t You?Subscribe here, anywhere you get your podcasts.