I’m obsessed with the whole listening thing this week, and it reminded me of an observation from last year. A visiting scholar was here who was reputed to be a good listener. I spent some time with him, and it’s true that he was quiet, but sometimes it became alarming. I found myself chattering too much to fill the voids left by his not speaking. He was a meditator and contemplative, which explained part of it, but there was something decidedly un-peaceful about some of his quiet. Yes, he listened attentively, but he also wasn’t participating fully in conversation. My edgy observation was validated by a student employee of this office who said he made her nervous, and she always left his presence feeling as though she had volunteered too much information. I tried to become friends with him, and to a limited extent we succeeded, but over time I concluded that being around him and his lugubrious quiet was just too much work.
So yes, I suppose there is such a thing as too much listening, or confusing true, active listening with simply not talking. It’s a point for debate whether he was the one with the problem or we were (I’m willing to hear that it was our issue and not his!), but the kind of listening I prefer both as a speaker and a hear-er is the kind where we each give the other space and attention, but it is shared. Mutual. Energizing. Sometimes my turn, sometimes yours.
We’re working on this balance in the faculty book groups, and ideas and tips are all welcome.
In scholarly publishing book groups this week we’ve been discussing listening, especially the time we spend listening to someone doing a check-in for the week. In a series of posts I’ll explore some tics from my own past — things I used to do under the guise of “listening” that were actually anything but, and that I have learned to handle better by running groups and reading books on listening.
#1 is saying “That’s just like me!” and then taking the conversation away from the speaker. In judicious moderation it can be fine — friends find things in common all the time, and sometimes that’s how they become friends in the first place — but there is an art to using such phrases that will work better for both parties than simply chiming in.
“That’s just like me” (TJLM) is like salt — we can sprinkle it here and there, but if we’re too heavy handed then the dish becomes inedible, and quickly. As children we were also taught to taste our food before salting it, so I would say taste (experience) the conversation before adding TJLM. Instead of saying the line spontaneously and taking the conversation back from the speaker, we can focus on encouraging the speaker to say more… to elaborate and expand. What usually happens is that eventually the speaker has said whatever needed to be said, and s/he indicates readiness to hear from listeners.
Then it would seem tempting to rush to TJLM right away, but pause a second. What would happened if we kept the topic on the speaker a bit more at that point by asking questions and understanding fully?
At some point the speaker will feel done both with speaking and with answering questions. In the context of a faculty publishing group, this will generally fall within the time limit dictated by the number of people present. Then it is completely fine to come in with TJLM and point out what we have in common with the speaker’s experience.
This model feels wonderful to speakers, who consistently report going away from such groups feeling heard and understood. It also feels great to listeners, who have a chance to point out shared similarities in a manner that seems like bonding and connecting rather than interrupting or taking the floor.