I am a talker. I love to speak and to have people hear me. At an early age, I realized the value of a captive audience, and ever since, I have held court with my words. I trained as an actor, ran for student body president, became a camp counselor – any role where I got to talk and other people listened. Eventually, I became a teacher. An English teacher.
I work with my students to develop their voices, to explore what they have to say, to learn to speak up and to speak out. But the most important stuff isn’t in the words – mine or anyone else’s. As a seasoned talker, I have come – the hard way – to a surprising conclusion. The important words, I’ve learned, are the words that haven’t happened yet.
In freshman English at UCLA, I was in my element. I got to talk like a house on fire – spitting out insights, singing out references. I was nervous and excited when the professor asked me to stay after, the second week of class. She complemented my grasp of the subject and my enthusiasm for sharing my ideas. And then, she
told me ] she was going to call on me less, so other students could have more time to speak. She suggested that I might listen more, and talk less.
My ears burned as I walked away that day. I realized that I had learned to talk – early and well – but that no one had ever taught me to listen.
I began to notice how many words came out of my mouth, and how often I was listening to the sound of my own voice. Even when other people were speaking, I wasn’t listening to them – I was planning what I was going to say next.
So, I started a practice of listening. It doesn’t come naturally. It is hard work to pay attention: to turn off the practice stage in my head where I write and rehearse my next lines, and to let their words be the only words I hear.
And I discovered something – listening satisfies me in a way that talking almost never does.
Listening to others – or when no one is saying anything – listening to the silence of people thinking, and considering, and waiting. In silence. In those moments, I’m convinced, lives a special magic.
Today, my students can assure you, they hear my words quite a bit. But as often as I can, I try to model, and to teach, more than just how to speak. Because the true learning, the challenge that stretches me and helps me to grow, comes from the moments of curiosity, of preparing to hear someone besides myself. In listening.
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