There’s an old saying along these lines – “God gave us two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in that proportion.” That means we should listen at least twice as much as we speak.
I don’t know about you, but this is an area where I am challenged! Those of you who know me are laughing…I can hear it.
But truly, I took this message to heart the first time I heard it, and I have tried to become a better listener. I am trying even harder than usual these days, because I have observed that among our most powerful public figures – that is, government officials – and those whose job it is to inform of us what those in Washington are up to – that is, the broadcast media – listening has disappeared.
In my lifetime, I have watched our government become more and more polarized. As such, most of what we see in the media is groups of people shouting across the aisle at each other – and getting nothing done!
The media love it – they do a lot of shouting of their own. Controversy is apparently good for ratings. It does nothing, however, to enlighten the public.
I can think of two instances in particular that were apparently ratings bonanzas for a short period. The first one was Bill O’Reilly’s visit to “The View” to promote his latest book, “Pinheads and Patriots”. During his visit, the subject of the 9/11 Mosque came up and Whoopee Goldberg and Joy Behar became so offended by Bill’s reference to “Muslims attacking us” (Whoopee and Joy would have preferred that he say “Muslim extremists”) that together they got up and walked off the set.
This was followed closely by “the Juan Williams incident”. Juan Williams was fired from NPR for saying – on the O’Reilly Factor (Bill again!) – he gets a little nervous when he sees people on airplanes in “Muslim garb.” A day or two later, NPR CEO, Vivian Schiller, distinguished herself by flippantly saying “Mr. Williams’ feelings about Muslims should be between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist—take your pick.”
Intolerance all around! As I said, a ratings bonanza.
Here is a question – what did either of these high profile incidents do to further the public’s understanding of islamophobia? Nothing.
A phobia is an exaggerated fear. Did either of these incidents involve a rational discussion of our irrational fears? Quite the contrary – Bill O’Reilly was silenced (metaphorically) when his audience got up and walked off. Juan Williams was punished for naming his irrational fear out loud.
It doesn’t matter which side of the arguments in these two incidents you take. You should be very concerned about the fact that there are certain subjects that are off limits these days – talking about them, or using “the wrong words” to talk about them, can get you censured, fired, ostracized, etc.
But if we can’t talk about our irrational fears, how can we resolve them?
For me, the issue is this – we have serious problems in this country, and around the world. And if we don’t learn to listen to each other and have civil discourse, we have no hope whatsoever of solving these problems.
This will involve talking about issues where we are divided. Can we discuss them in a way that draws us closer to answers? Can we have a dialogue about anything without name-calling, shouting, and sarcasm?
I am an optimist. I think we can. We just have to find the will and the skill. (And honestly, isn’t this true for everything?)
For the skill part, I’d like to recommend two very fine resources. One is a book by Dr. Mark Goulston (http://markgoulston.com/) called “Just Listen”. Read it – it’s great.
The other is http://storycorps.org/ – this is the organization that actually came up with the National Day of Listening. Please read about them on their web pages. If you want to cultivate the art of listening, they have many resources to help you do that.
I have also downloaded their iPhone app and one of the things I do to start my day is to play a “story”. This practice has not only helped me “practice” my listening skills, it has been life-enriching. As long as they keep posting stories, I will keep listening.
I’d like to suggest that on Friday, November 26, 2010, for the National Day of Listening, that we take the time to ask the people we care about a really interesting question – and then really listen to the answer. Make it a regular practice.
In closing, I would like to leave you with a few quotations about listening. I hope they will inspire us all to have the will to become better listeners.
“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
“While the right to talk may be the beginning of freedom, the necessity of listening is what makes the right important.” Walter Lippmann
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill
“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” Sue Patton Thoele
“A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end, he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.” Kenneth A. Wells