Listen Up

dog ears 1019
Photo lifted from I’ve never been there — I just “borrowed” the image.

If you use Firefox, as I do, for your browser (and somehow I’m using Duck Duck Go within that framework — I cannot explain the internet to you), then you know that every time you open a new tab, you are presented with an infinite number of reading options.


Some of these options take you to subscription-based places, like the New York Times or Washington Post; some of the options are straight-up commercials; and some of the options take you to reputable “magazines” that I’m sure would be glad to take your money, but don’t demand it up front just for you reading this one article that was posted as a reading suggestion from your friendly browser who I’m sure means no harm.

[This morning Firefox did let me know it stopped a social media tracker from following me onto WordPress as part of some new feature. I feel safer already.]

Generally, but not always, I bypass these reading suggestions. I always bypass the articles from the New York Times, no matter how tempting, because I will get hit with endless reminders that this is the first of my two free articles for the month. And while I agree we should be paying for the journalism that informs a democracy (I believe this to the core of my being), you should not offer something as “free reading” when it barely is. (I suppose, technically it’s all click bait and I should approach anything on offer from Firefox or Microsoft or anyone else as such.)

But a week or two ago I followed a link to Inc magazine (no purchase required) about how to be an exceptional listener. It was an interesting and, to me, thought-provoking article. It has caused me to decide I am not an exceptional listener, or even a very good one.

I imagine we all like to think of ourselves as good listeners, even the people who talk endlessly and over others. But if we were to read an article about what’s involved in great listening and evaluate ourselves against this bar, well . . . I must conclude I am a dog listener.

This was not a term or concept the author (name completely unremembered) introduced. He (I think) was big on listening for “the offer,” a concept that he only nebulously explained. It is a business magazine, after all, so the writer seems to think that every conversation is transactional — and perhaps they all are. To be a good listener, I read, you have to hear what the other person is offering, even if that offer isn’t a good one.

Which sort of makes sense, but some of his examples included hearing the “offer” in non-verbal cues such as people who don’t look up while you’re talking to them (that’s me at work all the time, and maybe I’m “offering” to my co-workers to leave me alone, but I think of it as multi-tasking, which we should all acknowledge never really works for anyone).

So after thinking about it, I have decided I listen just like a dog: attentively if I think there’s something in it for me, such as food, attention, or an opportunity to do something that surely will be more fun than whatever we’re doing right now, and really not listening in any other situation. And selectively not hearing when I’m doing something I know is wrong but I’m doing it anyway.

It doesn’t matter how much fun a dog is having at any given moment, there’s always the possibility that whatever happens next might be even more fun, so they are always at the ready to drop whatever is happening in favor of the next best thing. And I probably do a lot of listening like that: not really present in this moment, because I need to get to something more pressing (if not fun) down the road.

The one place I really read about myself in the article was in the suggestion that when you encounter someone whose views you don’t agree with, you try listening to the reasons they feel the way they do, instead of rehearsing your rebuttal that will persuade them to your point of view. (Which of course it won’t, because they will listen to you in the same manner you “listened” to them.) That will be very hard to do when I’m every bit as confident in my rightness as I am in their wrongness, but it does seem a laudable goal.

There are situations where I am just never going to be a good listener, and I’m okay with that. One year when I worked at the airport most of my co-workers turned out to be avid fisherfolk, and every day — every single day — the conversation was about fish. At Pat’s, if you put James and Ben (or Ben and our mail carrier Patrick) in the same vicinity, the conversation — every single day — will be about video games. I don’t feel my listening presence required in these situations, even if I’m in the same room and even if I might learn something about the broader world. Nope, not hearing it.

Then there’s Lynn-and-TL listening, which isn’t listening at all, but a perpetual series of “What?”s taking place. The rule is supposed to be: if you can’t see the other person, there’s no point in talking, because it won’t be heard. Guess which rule gets broken about 50 times each day? Whaaat?

To offer a masterful summary, I went on a five-minute research project to see who said something along the lines of “listening is better than talking” and found a veritable treasure trove, from the ancient Greeks to Stephen Covey, the 7 Habits guy, who hit my nail right on the head: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

But here is this opposing viewpoint from Sarah Dressen, whoever she might be: “This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”

Although I suppose it’s the same point: listening is safer than talking. Even if it’s harder.

I will give the last word to John Wayne, although I understand he’s not in vogue these days and perhaps we should not be listening (!) to him, but at least he’s pithy and it might come in handy some day in your future: “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”


One thought on “Listen Up

  1. Nothing better than a basset. However, don’t let those ears fool you, apparently ear size has no correlation to listening ability (when it comes to behavior) and does correlate when it comes to listening to emotions.


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