Why The Kindest Words May Be… Tell Me

I could have answered my client’s question in the first two minutes of our call, if only she’d taken a breath. She was describing her property-line dispute with a level of detail only necessary if her hedge had been the site of a double homicide and I were the lead detective. Since she’d called just to ask about her trial date, and since I’d heard her story before, I was anxious to wrap things up.

But the trial date wasn’t really why she called, as I concluded more than 15 minutes later. What she really craved was a listener. And I wasn’t being a very good one.

It may be misguided to start a column by writing about a skill I haven’t yet mastered, especially when my years of trying cases, working in education, and teaching courses on, of all things, communication, should make me better than average at it.

But if I don’t excel at listening, at least I’m aware of my inadequacies. I’m an interrupter. A sentence finisher. At times, a conversation hijacker. I hurry speakers along with a string of “yeah-yeah-yeahs” that signal, “I know where this is going so kindly jump right to the end.”

I’m not alone. You might be a sketchy listener, too. If not, you probably know a few.

We non-listeners aren’t trying to be rude. But there are only so many hours in the day, right? And we’re all so very, very busy.

Not long ago, Americans celebrated the life of one of our greatest listeners, Larry King. He conducted more than 50,000 interviews: presidents, world leaders, celebrities, sports stars, even convicted criminals. No matter the guest, his interviews were characterized by notable restraint. “I never learned by talking,” he once said.

This made King a rarity in a business where too often, a guest must endure the host’s lengthy monologue before blurting out a quick, “Yes, but..”, as the director cuts to a commercial break. It is, after all, the interviewer’s show, and he or she is the star.

It may have been called The Larry King Show, but his guests were the clear stars. King didn’t show off his own expertise, opting instead for simple but penetrating questions. In his 2007 interview with Robin Williams he asked, “Are you a good father?”  To Nancy Reagan: “Would you call yourself strong?” 

King famously didn’t prepare. His curiosity about his guests prompted his questions, and listening to their responses propelled the conversation forward.

He gave his guests time to think. Unlike the verbal brawls that often pass for interviews, King was rarely confrontational and his guests spoke freely. Once, Frank Sinatra opened up to him about his son’s kidnapping, a topic King was told he’d never discuss on television.

Empathy, curiosity, and restraint built King’s reputation as a listener of the highest order and I, for one, could stand to learn something from his example.

It’s not like our culture is abounding with lessons in great listening.

Of all the communication skills we try to foster, listening is hardly a priority. Colleges offer full-semester courses on public speaking, group dynamics, and persuasion, but rarely more than a session or two on listening. 

And the social rewards for good listening are few. No one accumulates “followers” just by listening to others, and “influencers” don’t achieve that status because of their willingness to hand someone else the mic.

Yet even though listening isn’t often taught, in my house anyway, we all seem to be listening to something all of the time, mostly with little white buds in our ears. I’m constantly playing audiobooks. My oldest son listens to podcasts; another, YouTube videos, and the third, reruns of The Office. The youngest is immersed in battle strategies piped through gaming headphones, while my husband streams country music at a volume that induces howling by our beagles.

That sort of listening isn’t lacking today. We’re awash in a noisy flood of entertainment, information, and opinions. Instead, it’s the relational kind where we’re logging a deficit, even when, as studies estimate, about half of our waking time is spent listening to others. As one might assume, it’s not always effective.

But when it is, it produces deep and lasting benefits.

First, those who listen, learn. We tend to listen only to those with whom we already agree, but that’s short-sighted, cutting off the vast education that conversation can provide. Galileo, whose erudition was unsurpassed, once remarked, “I have never met a man so ignorant that I could not learn something from him.”

Second, listeners elevate their environments. For example, researchers have found that active, empathic listening by teachers reduces students’ incivility in the classroom. In workplaces, employees supervised by skilled listeners are more satisfied and less stressed. One study even suggested that a company’s bottom line is correlated to the perception of a listening management. Think you’re solving your workplace challenges by giving another speech? Try listening instead.

Finally, listeners are perceived more favorably. At work, they’re seen as having positive leadership qualities, and in social situations, they’re great conversationalists. As a young adult, I dreaded parties and the expectation to provide witty banter, until I learned that most people relish others’ curiosity about them. By asking people about themselves, the pressure was instantly relieved. 

However, perhaps the greatest reason to listen well is that it is, as broadcaster Dave Isay says, “an act of love.”

I first learned about Isay’s StoryCorps project during a tour of the National September 11 Memorial. I was captivated by recordings of those who had lived through that tragedy, and later learned that Isay was on a mission to document stories gathered by regular folks throughout the nation. So far, about a half million people have recorded a StoryCorps interview. Some of them are my students.

Rather than lecture on the value of listening, I regularly assigned my college classes a StoryCorps interview: find someone you’d like to know better, plan open-ended questions, and give the subject freedom to share. 

Some couldn’t get past the assignment’s simplicity. Their recordings sounded like an audition for Good Morning America: mostly them being chatty and clever. But others relinquished control and listened intently. They kept quiet; their subjects shone. Several students reported that it was the most meaningful assignment they’d ever completed.

They learned that while there are hallmarks of effective listening — eye contact, attentiveness, encouraging prompts, and a host of nonverbal cues — the most essential quality isn’t a skill, but a state of mind: humility. We may imagine that a humble person thinks of himself as less worthy than others, but as the great theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, the truly humble man “won’t be thinking of himself at all.”

Getting our minds off ourselves is a tall order, especially when our culture hardly allows for it, let alone encourages it. But if we can do it even briefly — maybe even for just 15 minutes so we can listen to someone like my client’s story about their trespassed hedges — we’d perform a simple kindness for another human being.

Has there ever been a time when such a small kindness was so greatly needed?

By Stephanie Iaquinto, JD, PhD Stephanie Iaquinto is an attorney and occasional professor of communication who lives in Virginia Beach with her husband, four sons, and three adorable dogs.