As I was listening to this segment on NPR on the way to work the other day, it occurred to me that I had an essay to write. An essay to write about listening, and how rare it is that people really get quiet enough to listen to what another person is trying to say to them.
I believe I have had a unique experience in this regard, in the lesson of learning to sit quietly and to focus and listen intently to what another person is saying. For the past 25 years, I have worked as a court reporter. It is my job to stenographically write down every word said during the course of various legal proceedings. Every word, uttered by every person.
In learning to do this, I have learned that listening is not just hearing the words that are said. I have learned to watch the way that a person leans a little forward to indicate they’re about to speak I have learned to listen for the intake of breath that happens before a person begins to speak. I have learned that watching a person’s face makes it easier to hear what they’re saying; that lip reading is not only a skill for the deaf.
I have learned that communication is only partially verbal, and that very few sentences in conversations are completed; that another person interrupts that sentence because they understand what is being said. That is what I’ve learned about the technical skill of listening.
But then there is the soul skill of listening, the one I wasn’t anticipating learning about years ago in school. This lesson I have learned over the years of sitting silently, listening. The way that, when I look into the eyes of my witnesses while they speak, I can see they feel heard. The startled looks I received from lawyers when I look into their eyes when they speak, and they look back into mine, having that experience of connecting with another person.
It was then that I began to understand what my real purpose was in these adversarial rooms of the legal world. I am the one who can extend grace to each person in the room each day. I, in my silence and focus, am saying, “I see you. I hear you. For this moment, you have my complete attention.”
I have learned that people have a great desire to be heard and understood. It is unfortunate, to me, that our legal system is so adversarial. It seems that so much litigation would go away if we had a space for such attentive listening. It is such a basic human desire to be heard and understood; not necessarily agreed with, but leaving with a feeling that someone truly listened.
It seems to me that this is such a missing element in our world today, from individuals talking to each other all the way up to nations talking to each other. We might as well say talking at each other. So much could be solved if we were willing to lay our agendas down for just a moment and turn our full attention to be silent and listen. How much we would hear, from our families, our friends, our communities, our nations, our world?
I catch myself, at times, when talking with friends or family, that I am as anxious as the next person to have them finish what they’re saying so I can have my say. Only I try to catch myself. I try to see if they’re really finished. I try to remember how frustrating it is to be trying to tell someone about something important to me, only to have them interrupt me with something important to them. In those moments of interruption, I feel a profound sense of isolation, of aloneness, of feeling misunderstood or, worse yet, unimportant and unheard. And if that is happening between two people who like or love each other, what affect this must have on people who don’t even like or respect each other?
So I practice at being a good listener off the record, in my home, well as at work. And hope that by starting this with my own community, it will be my light that I can send into the world.
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