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Mouth Closed, Mind Open

Mer collumn

Bumping down the aisle of the 737 toward the steerage section, I glanced at the seat designations noting that 18E was, of course, a middle seat. Sigh. Gear stowed and seat belt buckled, the next revelation was my companion, (the one who scored the window seat,) a young woman who clearly wanted to talk, judging by her several overtures.

Worn out after five days of visiting shops and show-going, and with three hours and 58 minutes of flight time ahead, chit chat was the last thing I was interested in. So I brushed off her first forays at conversation, closing my eyes in fake snooze mode till take off then opening my laptop promptly when the announcement was made. But somewhere over Missouri, my exhaustion ebbing and stress easing, the ice broke. She was wearing a Harley T-shirt too after all, which, she told me later, was why she thought I’d be someone she could talk to.

As it turns out I didn’t talk much at all, she did. I only listened, which was exactly what this stranger needed. She just wanted to tell her story to somebody, and that somebody turned out to be me.

She said she was on the way home from a memorial service for her husband, held in his hometown. He’d been riding his Harley the day of the accident and she was home with the kids, as usual. Riding had been his hobby when they met, but she was aware of what it meant to him so she had never tried to restrict his riding time—though she didn’t join in either. But she knew that his riding family had meant so much to him, as recently evidenced by their impressive showing at the memorial, and now that he was gone she was determined to find out why, while it was only just partly too late for her. So, as she explained to me, when she saw someone in biker garb she was starting to speak up, in an effort to get to the heart of what made bike people tick and perhaps get closer to the joy and pleasure her husband had experienced in their company.

She offered more detail, but that was the gist of it. So I shook my head, murmured un-huhs, and listened. Once we landed and parted ways, I was chagrined and slightly embarrassed that I had selfishly squandered away time early in the flight.

Pondering later on this episode of active listening, it struck me as quite a turnaround. See, some people are born with a generous spirit that makes them good listeners. But for others, me in particular, learning to listen has been an acquired skill, one I’m still working on. I come from a boisterous family where fearlessly interrupting and raising one’s voice to be heard is considered polite discussion. There’s no mean spiritedness about it, it’s just how we communicate.

For many years, I thought this was the way everyone conversed, that speaking one’s mind without concern for feelings or opposing viewpoints was typical. So when I began studying journalism and had to acquire interview techniques, it came as a shock that I was supposed to listen, not talk. The people I was interviewing didn’t care about my opinions, not at all. And it took stupendous effort for me to keep quiet, too. I can’t say how many times I kicked myself after leaving an interview, thinking I would have learned more if I’d kept my mouth shut and not interrupted.

Eventually I learned that asking open-ended questions, as opposed to the kind where a mere yes or no suffices, encourages the other person to talk more. I figured out that allowing a moment of silence can be pivotal, too. What might be revealed after a beat of reflection can change everything. But more important than interview techniques, I learned that my real job was learning to listen. For a chatty, tenacious terrier type person who always (at least in my mind) had something worth saying, this was an epic obstacle, a very steep learning curve to conquer.

Human nature being what it is, the Dale Carnegie adage is true: if you listen while another person talks about themselves, it reflects back on the listener. The talker goes away thinking what an entertaining person you are, even though they did most of the talking.

Whether that’s accurate or not, this much I know: when I truly listen, without an agenda, I’m the one who walks away from the exchange richer by far. – Marilyn Stemp