Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.
Margaret J. Wheatley at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretj283927.html#DW7KqoIsDM1uGJif.99
My former student, Jordee, called me from her office this week.
If you are a teacher, you WANT a student like Jordee. She was smart and hardworking. She was responsive and respectful and she loved learning. She tackled the biggest challenge I could throw her way, and then she thanked me for the opportunity.
Jordee graduated with a business degree bolstered by a strong helping of human services courses. Almost immediately, she landed a good job with a private employment agency. Jordee is a job counselor and a job developer. I hear she is darned good at what she does, and I am not surprised.
She called because she has a client who is almost a perfect match with a position at my place of employment. She wanted to know how to best connect him.
I got excited myself as she described this guy, who has pretty amazing and unusual expertise and education.
“So, do you think I should just have him apply normally,” Jordee asked me, ” or should I connect him with the actual supervisor?”
I opened my mouth to reply (the answer is, always apply through normal channels first, of course), but before I could answer, Jordee forged on. She told me all about meeting the client. She told me how she had cleverly ferreted out his unique skills, and how she had thought to connect him with my employer. Along the way, she asked several questions, and every time I tried to answer, she plunged further into her narrative.
It became kind of obvious that she wasn’t really calling for an answer to her question; she was calling to tell me about her journey to a marvelously creative solution. I had to, finally, break in, congratulate her, and let her know I was overdue for a meeting. Abashed, she apologized, said she would do what she knew she should do in the first place: have him submit an app on-line. And then she said goodbye and was gone.
I hung up, thinking wryly that I might have helped Jordee learn some writing techniques, some research skills, or some verbal organization (all things she was pretty good at, anyway). But I clearly hadn’t taught her anything about listening.
I really did have a meeting that day; it was all the way across campus. I bundled up and headed over. As I waited for the light to change, I thought about the fine art of listening. The ‘walk’ signal flashed on–shining that little white-light striding man at me–and as I stepped off the curb, I remembered an incident from many years ago. Jim must have been 11 or 12; it was during the law school years, and our dryer had up and died. I had to take a batch of wet clothes to the laundromat to dry them, and, nice boy that he is, Jim volunteered to come along.
He brought his little DVD player; I brought a book. We shlepped the wet laundry into two industrial strength dryers, fed the dryers quarter after quarter, then settled in to to wait for them to do their magic. Over the hum of the appliances, we became aware of two women–young mothers–talking.
“I am SO tired!” said the first. “I had to work till 6:00 yesterday, and then I had to make cupcakes for Danae to take to school today.”
“Oh, I know,” said the second mom. “I had to be away all day for work, and when I got home I had to bake for the bake sale. I made Cookie Monster cupcakes with little candy googly eyes and spikey blue frosting. I was up until 2:00! But the teacher said she’d never seen anything so cute.”
There was a little silence–a little SOUR silence, maybe, I thought,–and then Mom One jumped back into the fray. “Yes,” she said. “Well, then this morning, I had to be up by five AM so I could make special lunches for Jake’s field trip. He is so picky!!! He won’t eat anyone’s food but mine. And Doug had an important business meeting and his shirts weren’t back from the dry cleaner so I had to iron his shirt and press his suit before getting the kids off. Today,” she added, “was my carpool day.”
Mom Two was ready for her. “Oh, I know,” she said. “Phil had to go on a buying trip, and he always has to have at least two pressed shirts for each day he’s on the road. He hates the way anyone but me presses his shirts! So I was up early, too, getting him organized. We had to call him a limo–of course the company pays for that–and then I had to get the kids to school. We pick up those new refugee children everyday, you know,–the ones from Bosnia? Those people just have no sense of time–we are ALWAYS late!–but my children are so sensitive and kind. They just want those kids to be happy and have friends.”
Mom One piled right back in–she was getting the house ready for a visit from her in-laws; they both noted complicated, escalating involvement as sports moms and recital moms. Their litanies grew and intertwined. And all the while, Mom Two was batting away a toddler, maybe two or three years old, who was practically crawling up her leg, looking for attention.
“Mom,” said the little one. “MOM. MOM! Ma!!!”
It looked as though the baby’s toy car had rolled under a stack of laundry carts; the little guy needed help in retrieving it. But Mom Two wasn’t hearing. At one point, she actually put her hand over the boy’s mouth to make him be quiet. Jim finally slipped over, crawled under the carts, and got the kid his vehicle.
The mother never noticed, even though the boy got quiet.
In the car, Jim said to me, “What were those two women DOING?”
“Well, Bud,” I said, “I think they were vying for mommy-of-the-year honors.”
Jim snorted. “Mommies of the year,” he said, “don’t ignore their kids.”
Remembering that had taken me right to the door of the building my meeting was in; I traipsed into the room, sloughed my jacket and scarf off into an empty chair, and took out my notepad and pen. I turned my phone to mute and laid it down in front of me so I could track the time. And as I waited for the meeting to begin, I thought to myself that listening is becoming a lost art.
Examples: Jordee wasn’t listening. Those mamas were not listening.
We are concerned, I ruminated, with communicating. We make sure the information we need to impart is out there–on paper, in a voice mail, via email, on social media.
We fall short, though, on opening ourselves to the response to those info-bytes. “But I GAVE you the information,” we say, when people complain they didn’t know, didn’t understand, couldn’t comply.
And it’s true. We put the news out there, all right. We just never afford our audience a chance to respond. Or, if they take the time to respond, we pay that response little or no never-mind.
Oh, we’re inundated–it is true. We’re flooded with email messages, and while we’re sorting those out–the urgent from the important from the interesting from the throwaway–the phone will ring with someone’s right-now, immediate need, and we halt midway through our electronic sorting and deal with the call. And then, before we can return, there is, maybe, an intruder, a visitor, who comes in, shuts the door, says, pleadingly, “You HAVE to help me.”
Faced with that, what do I do?
I sit her down, of course, that visitor. I smile at her across the desk, I nod and reply cogently, but all the while, I’m sneaking peeks at the cell phone in my lap–easy enough just to send an ‘OK’ to the hubby, who messaged that he’s stopping to pick up a crusty loaf of bread and a bottle of wine on the way home.
Hmm…what was she rattling about? Oh, right, right: the door that’s never unlocked when it’s supposed to be.
As she runs on, I note that I have five notifications on FaceBook, three on Twitter, and my personal email inbox is jam-packed full. My leg starts to jiggle; will she just get done, already?
Then the desk phone rings; I check the caller ID. Hallelujah; it’s my friend, Terri.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, properly regretful. “I HAVE to take this.”
“Oh, sorry!” says the visitor. “But will you….?”
“I will!” I promise. “I’ll touch base with you by the weekend. ‘Bye now,” and I’m reaching for the phone.
By the time Terri hangs up, I have forgotten the visit, forgotten the problem; I can’t remember which door was locked or why that created a picklish situation.
Oh, let me be honest–I wasn’t listening in the first place.
There’s an epidemic, I thought, as my meeting wore on–there’s too much information; there’s too little listening.
The meeting wrapped up. I pulled my outer gear back on, and I walked back across the street, thinking about professional development. Maybe we could do a listening workshop? It seemed to me there was a technique in a Parker Palmer book, something about deep listening, that involved affording the one with the questions the luxury of a discernment committee. Those committee members would not judge; they would nudge. They’d nudge the quester along on her path.
She would lay bare her dilemma, outline the decision she needed to make, describe her choices. They would ask her questions–questions that wouldn’t sway or inform, but only help her find her way deeper into the solution, which rested, of course, solely in her own psyche. It was an exercise in essential listening, in which the petitioner knew she had two or three people whose only reason to be present was to listen to her.
We should, I thought to myself, offer that to people. Maybe do a demonstration, even a scripted one, and then help people form discernment teams.
I decided to present that idea to my supervisor, who was in his office when I got back to my building. I called to see if he had a free moment. Come on back, he said. I hung up my things, grabbed my notebook, headed over.
“Come in,” said my boss. “Sit down! I want to hear about your idea, but first tell me about the meeting. What did you think of Layne’s proposal?”
I froze just as I was planting my butt in the chair. Layne had a proposal?
What WAS Layne’s proposal?
I realized, as I was about to outline my professional development plan, my scheme to get our colleagues to listen to one another, that I had zoned out for the entire meeting.
“You know,” I said to my boss, “I’m a little hazy. I must not have been concentrating as well as I could have. Let me review my notes and get back to you.”
“Great,” he said, “but tell me about your inspired idea before you go.”
“Well,” I said, and I was pumping my pedals backward, full speed behind, “I’m thinking I need to work on my listening skills. I thought I’d do some mindful research and implement some practical steps and really strive to improve. What do you think?”
He nodded and smiled, and he told me my goals were worthy, and he stood up and ushered me out the door. And, I thought to myself, this is not just back-pedalling. I’m going to, I really am, work on this listening thing.
And I do work on it. I make a beginning, anyway. I read my Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I concentrate on practicing awareness. I put my phone face down, ringer off, on the table in front of me during conversations. I make myself respond to people with questions that reiterate their points, that force me to demonstrate understanding of what they said. During the sermon on Sunday, I go so far as to jot notes in the margins of the bulletin.
I limit my email time. I don’t bring my book to the dining table. I ask questions about things that interest my loved ones; I wait for, I listen to, the answers.
Back at work the next week, I set myself some parameters. I will control my email, sorting and saving and responding to those that need immediate responses. I will take notes during meetings and ask clarifying questions. I will give my complete attention to those who call and those who visit, and I will be free to tell them when I need to return to the day’s work.
I begin, that very day, to implement these changes. I find myself falling off the resolution tightrope now and then, but I catch myself before I crash. I climb back on.
Thursday rolls around and my boss is walking down the hall and he hails me and asks how it’s going.
“Good!” I say. “I think I’m making progress on that little project we talked about.”
He gets that funny glazed look, and he says, “Good, good,” and he scurries away. I realize he has no idea what I’m talking about. He wasn’t listening at that meeting last week when I ad-libbed my new listening project. It’s okay, though; I don’t think I have the right to complain.
It’s like my clever friend Annie wrote to me, back when we first moved here. She described meeting a woman we both remembered from high school at a coffee shop. The woman swooped in on Annie, where she sat reading; the woman plunked herself down and complained bitterly about meeting a friend for lunch. The friend, she told Annie bitterly, had talked through the whole meal, and left without giving her companion a chance to say ANYTHING.
“I HATE that!” said Annie’s visitor, and swept away without waiting for Annie to respond.
Oh, well, wrote Annie , wryly. She lives in a sound-proof glass house–and yet she throws tones.
I’m not going to fault my boss’s listening habits; I need to learn to stop throwing tones, myself.
Have a wonderful week, my friends. May all your messages be received!