I Believe in Listening
By Shelagh McFadden
The prisoner in his orange jumpsuit sincerely thanked the pair of cops who’d just spent an hour questioning him. “I’ve been praying for someone to talk to,” he said, and these two men had listened.
I was privileged to witness this because I’m researching a book about noncoercive law enforcement interviewing, scientifically-based techniques that make intimidation obsolete. The detectives, government agents, and military personnel who use these methods are a world away from the abusive amateurs at Abu Ghraib and the bullying stereotypes we see on TV.
I originally began this project because I dreamed of embarrassing old-fashioned bureaucracies into changing their ways. Lately, though, I’ve realized how personally invested I am. The heart of the best forensic interviewing, you see, is listening. Isn’t it what we all want, to be heard? The last time I fell in love, I’m sure it was because he listened to me so well.
A negotiator I’ve interviewed for the book, a man who routinely talks suicides off rooftops, tells me that schizophrenics are the hardest rescues, because the voices in their heads make it so difficult for them to hear what he says. He asks them to repeat silently every word he speaks, which quiets the noise so they can focus. We all have noise inside our heads — programming from parents, teachers, and friends, never mind the cacophony of media and a thousand ads a day. To listen is to be open to change.
When I was growing up, I had an eccentric aunt who mortified me regularly by striking up conversations with strangers wherever we went. After I graduated from college, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I went home to visit; she was unbearably thin and bald from chemotherapy, yet she insisted we go out shopping. We were sitting in the local mall’s food court when she did the usual. She looked at a pair of women sitting nearby and said to one, “That’s a pretty dress you have on.” My stomach jumped, wondering if they would snub my frail, bald aunt, but they did not. The three of them carried on a long conversation, not about her but about them. This was her secret: She didn’t talk so much as she listened. I sat there in that mall food court and thought, “This is who I want to be.”
I’ve logged more than 1,600 unpaid hours researching my book project, and I moved from New York to L.A. to be closer to my sources. Some call this crazy. But I’m just still working on becoming the person I set out to be, because I believe in the power of listening.
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