On a recent visit home, our son was telling us about life lessons he had recently heard on a podcast. On it, the producer reminded the listeners that to be a good conversationalist one has to be willing to learn. One needs to take the posture of listening and thinking to oneself- “What can I learn from this person who is talking?”
I love this idea. Which of course is nothing new. We should always treat others as if their presence is a gift to us: a gift of time, experience, advice, of being. It is one of the tenants from the still published and still offered courses by Dale Carnegie. HIs signature book was “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It was first published in 1937 and is still in print. I never read the book nor took any of the courses yet have always been intrigued by that title. In some ways it seems so contrived and calculating: to win friends and intentionally influence others. Yet that is what we do or try to do with one another whether we want to think it happens or not.
According to Wikipedia the book was broken down into different sections: things that the book will do for you (presumably if you pay the money for the course and/or books); fundamental techniques for handling people; ways to make people like you; ways to influence people to the way you think; how to be a leader without giving people offense or feeling of resentment; letters that produce miraculous results (removed in later editions of the book) and ways to make your home life happier (again, removed in subsequent re-printings of the book).
Part of his explanation of making people like you is to take a genuine interest in others and listen to what they say. That does seem cold and calculating and not at all organic. However, the rationale that by listening, we may learn something new is a great posture of humble listening: To recognize value in each interaction with one another and that in that interaction, someone may teach us something new.
The thing that I have noticed lately is the lack of one another really listening. (I include myself with this.) There is no longer the art of conversation but rather joint monologues. I think of the “play dates” for two-year-olds. At that age, there is not interactive play- just side by side individual play. Our conversations are like that. One person will speak and another will speak either over top of that person or interrupt or continue on a totally different wavelength and/or topic. Very rarely is there a conversation where the conversational ball gets tossed back and forth with the addition of new and interesting information being shared. It is almost as if everyone has a limited time to get his/her point across about any topic and so conversations become this quick exchange of “my” information.
I do think that the time factor is part of the problem. Our days are jam packed with transactions: running here and there, trying to accomplish whatever we deem important. We don’t get a chance to really speak to the people we know and love in our lives nor much less listen to the peripheral people that we bump shoulders with- the customers in the grocery store, at the gas pump, folks who are walking down the street, and in some cases the people living next door to us.
Just yesterday I was able to truly listen to a stranger and it was only due to the fact that I had some extra time. My friend and I had gone grocery shopping together and as my order was smaller, I was finished sooner than she. In one aisle I encountered a gentleman who was having a little trouble seeing the items on the shelves and so I made a brief comment to help him out. This led to a ten minute discussion where the man told me some of his life story.
The whole time I was with him because I was thinking of my son’s comment about his podcast, I consciously thought, “Be present with him. Really listen and recognize the gift that he has brought to your day.” It was a wonderful discussion. Now in all honesty, I didn’t learn any encyclopedic knowledge but I did get a taste of what I have been thinking and writing about. Plus the chore of going to the store didn’t seem so burdensome. After this encounter I began wondering, What next? Whom will I meet at the next place? I was prepared to keep my eyes and ears opened.
What about you? What are your interactions with people like? Are they strictly transactional? Do you listen? Could you repeat back what you have been told? Do you know the eye color of the person who just spoke to you? I realized that many times I see people with out truly seeing them.
In my encounter at the grocery store, I intentionally wanted to connect and so I saw him and his interesting pale almost amber/brown eyes. Of course, in this day and age we need to be smart. You don’t want to have the reputation of the creepy starer in the neighborhood or being accused of longingly looking at a person when all you are doing is trying to look them in the eye. But I know for myself I need to be more intentional in my listening skills and part of that requires me to zero in on the face of the speaker.
I do not know how much I win friends or influence people and that is really not my intent. I think the beauty of the lessons is to connect with others and build community. When we have an understanding community, we will win friends and influence others for the betterment of society.