Octo Observations: Listening versus Talking

In today’s email a joke popped up from a good pal. It caught my eye. In cartoon form, the drawing depicted two old folks, obviously a seasoned married couple, sitting on a park bench. The wife looks at her husband and says, “I would let you talk more, but you’re not as interesting as I am!” Funny, for sure, but accurate in today’s world of more talkers than listeners. Turn on your TV. Panel shows quickly reveal that with three or four or more people gathered around a semi-circular table, it is nearly impossible for one person to speak two full sentences without one or two others leaping in to add their two cents. The effect is ridiculous. It is counterproductive.  Everyone is talking at once, and nothing can be heard. Rude behavior.

Eric Fromm, a noted German born American humanistic philosopher and psychoanalyst of the twentieth century, wrote a famous treatise called The Art of Listening. The book, not published until 1994, fourteen years after Fromm’s death, is a compilation of lectures Fromm delivered in Switzerland during the 1970s. Listening, according to Fromm, is the “art of unselfish understanding…an art like the understanding of poetry, and like any art it has its own rules and norms.” Fromm offers six rules for unselfish understanding:


1. “The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.”

2. “Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as well as from greed.”

3. “He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.”

4. “He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.”

5. “The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him…not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing him.”

6. “Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process, and the door to essential understanding remains closed.”

So much to absorb, and so much to practice when we attempt to listen to others. I wonder if we are open minded enough to TRY to embrace Fromm’s concept of listening. I wonder if we can put aside our own need to be heard long enough to hush and put ourselves into the other person’s shoes…to be receptive to someone else’s thoughts or feelings. Hopefully, we can, but most likely we need to work on ourselves to talk less.

We live in a time when listening to each other must be practiced or we risk a country deeply, permanently at odds with anyone whose beliefs are different than our own. If we cannot listen, we cannot accept each other. We cannot  encourage our youth to become productive citizens, embracing open minds and hearts. That is not to say that we cannot hold our own treasured traditions and beliefs. That is not to say that we can’t champion long time values we deem fair, rational and important. But it is by way of saying we cannot shut our ears to someone else’s opinion. As my husband has always said, “Success in business or ANYTHING depends upon listening.” May I add that includes a long, happy marriage!

A few random thoughts: In my youth, children were taught to be “seen but not heard.” I remember when my parents entertained guests. I was invited to greet each adult, curtsy (yes, curtsy!!) upon introduction, and after exchanging a few polite words, disappear from view. No way was I allowed to interrupt an adult’s conversation, nor sit at their dinner table. Now, many younger adults encourage their children to share their space. Kids burst into a conversation without asking permission. If a mom is on the phone, she pauses long enough to address the concern of her child. (I remember my mother scowling and shaking her index finger at me if I tried to say two words when she was on the phone!) Does this practice promote talking rather than listening? Perhaps….but who really knows. I do know that when we were raising our four youngsters, we had rules for them to follow when we had company. Maybe it was our way of trying to teach good manners, good decorum. But after all, aren’t those two things essential in order for children to grow into receptive, respectful adults?

Another thought to share: How does it feel to converse with someone who constantly directs the conversation back to himself or herself? I asked a younger friend her opinion. She said that she believes a good listener is someone who is fully engaged. “Someone who isn’t so busy crafting a response that he or she is not paying attention”…someone who makes good eye contact, too…someone whose interest is genuine. 

My former neighbor volunteers each Monday morning at a local hospital as a patient advocate. She is an awesome, empathetic, and sensitive listener. When she sits across the table from me, her eyes are focused on me; she is not searching the room for someone else she might know.  No wonder I love to go to lunch with her. We may be ten years apart in age, but we love to exchange feelings, ideas, and concerns. We listen to each other, and we push for a deeper level of sharing. We try to help each other solve a problem or gain a new perspective. We linger long and leave satisfied.

Dr. Allen Hilton is a distinguished theologian, a Yale Divinity graduate, also a former professor on staff there. He has served as senior minister in a few different churches, and now, in his mid- fifties, has written a memorable book called A House United: How the Church Can Save the World.  Allen’s objective, or mission, is that we live in such a fractured, divisive environment that we have lost the ability to communicate with each other, to listen to each other without judging.  We are wrapped up in our own opinions, and hence, we are ineffective. I agree with Allen. And I admire him completely. I love how he is able to remain unbiased. I learn so much from him, even at my Octo age! He has created a business wherein he travels around the country helping various church congregations learn how to conduct Courageous Conversations. 

Last Sunday Allen came to our Virginia church, and we tackled Multigenerational Communication. Allen is a consummate facilitator. Our church has a large number of old(er) folks, plus a smaller group of vibrant thirty-somethings. Many of us realize that we are generationally at odds. The younger folks seem uninterested in reaching out  to the gray-haired group, and the older people exert little effort in return. Younger people believe that older folks cannot understand the challenges they must face in today’s world. Older folks say, “Yes, your challenges may be different than ours were, but no one goes through life without huge hurdles to climb. Thus, we DO understand more than you can imagine.” So far there is much room for improvement. Politics are an especially thorny topic. As Allen says, it is “okay to disagree, but it is not okay to disrespect.” 

One of his most effective exercises is for two people who do not know each other well to sit down together, one-on-one. For ten minutes each person talks about themselves, their lives, their concerns, their ideas, etc. During that time any interruption by the listener is forbidden. Wow! Have you ever tried to keep quiet for ten full minutes when the only other person in the room is talking? Yikes, I have to stick a sock in my mouth! 

I asked our third-year college student grandson his definition of a good listener. Brad is wise beyond his years. He believes he is in college to study, to get the best possible grades, and to earn his engineering degree with honors so that when he graduates he can secure many job opportunities. He has always been a thoughtful fellow, and although he lives across the country from his grandfather and me, he loves to catch up periodically via Facetime. We adore our chats. The other day I asked him his definition of a good listener…He thought for a minute, and said,” Too many people my age want to be the main protagonist in all conversations. That is monotonous. I see no reason to spend my time with those who aren’t interested in listening.” That, from a young man of 21. Blue ribbon to him for understanding the essence of listening!

Michael P. Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships has caught my eye. A few cogent quotes to ponder:

“A good listener is a witness, not a judge of your experience.”

“Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgment and, for a moment at least, existing for the other person.”

“If you doubt it, try telling someone about a problem you’re having, and see how long it takes before he interrupts to describe a similar experience of his own or to offer advice…advice that may suit him more than it does you.”

“We must forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention.” 

Wonderful “food for thought.” When we think back to the silly cartoon about the two old folks sitting on the park bench, we realize the veracity of the words. Do we want to be interesting merely to ourselves, or do we want to be valued because we have the ability to empathize and to grow in wisdom by listening?  Life is a learning experience, and as long as we draw breath, it is never too late to change and grow. I choose to work harder to be a better listener: to suppress whatever thoughts are swirling in my own mind, so that I can absorb, process and identify crystal clear bon mots from another who has entrusted his/her inner thoughts and feelings. Life is all about moving forward with love. Life is all about being the best possible person we can be, and it is certainly all about trusting that someone else may have  knowledge that we have yet to contemplate. Open your heart and mind…LISTEN! Talk sparingly!

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.

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