I believe in listening. This belief stemmed from my having to listen to a personal insult.
Many years ago, I was at a party where a cousin of mine was also a guest. Somehow in conversation with my cousin and mutual friends, a family matter of some delicacy was glancingly referred to. My cousin rolled his eyes and said, “Well, now it’ll be all over town since the family grapevine has heard it!”
It took me a minute to realize that the “family grapevine” was ME. I liked a juicy hunk of gossip as much as the next person, but I’d never thought of myself as a gossip. Then I realized, in re-playing the event in my head over the next few days, that I’d never thought much at all about what came out of my mouth. I was shocked to realize that perhaps I’d been one of those “no filter between brain and mouth” people.
Unconsciously, I think I’d thought I was somehow simply truthful–and truthfulness is a virtue! But truthfulness usually needs to be tempered, and it needs to take into account how talk can reverberate or devolve into something unpleasant.
I got very careful, very fast. I had to figure out how to reconcile my natural spontaneity and love of conversation with respect for other people’s secrets and other people’s feelings. A latticework of mental guidelines fell into place pretty quickly: I decided it had to be both true and kind if I were to say it. I would no longer tell secrets that weren’t mine to tell. I would consider the alternatives. I wouldn’t offer unasked-for advice. I began to understand that good communication was something more intense and more complex than simply talking and then waiting your turn to talk again. I would stop, I would listen, I would ask questions, and I would consider what I said before I said it.
Listening turned out to be an astonishing thing. The thrill I got from being trusted with other people’s secrets far outweighed the zing I’d formerly gotten from whispering those secrets to third parties. Having people turn to me for a sympathetic ear, or even advice, enriched me and strengthened my relationships.
Just a few days ago, a dear friend called and said, “Can I just rant and rave for a minute?” She was having a serious disagreement with her boyfriend, and needed to blow off some steam. I listened.
At the end of the conversation, I thanked my friend for calling and said it was hugely flattering to me that she’d wanted to talk to me about something so personal. Her response: “I wanted to bounce it off you, because you really have a feel for these things.” I’d never have developed “a feel for these things” if I hadn’t learned to listen.
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