I come from one of those families where you have to yell at the dinner table in order to get a word in edgewise. Everyone has a strong opinion, talks at the same time, and no one has a problem with instigating potentially heated arguments. An inordinate number of my aunts and uncles are lawyers; rousing discussions on politics are considered polite conversation. We’re that kind of family.
Belonging to a family like mine has made me more curious, more interested in the world around me, and much more inclined to question anything anyone tells me. But all that chattering and arguing made me realize that I believe in listening. And when I say “listening,” I am not referring to the nodding-your-head-and-politely-murmuring-Uh-huh-or-Ooh-I-see variety. I mean the kind of listening where you find yourself deeply identifying with the person you’re speaking with, when their story becomes so vivid that your world becomes less about you and more about them.
Last November I went to Kenya with my family. We were in Nairobi touring Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. Crime and murder are everyday occurrences, sewage and trash cover the ground, and small children play innocently in filthy piles of garbage. Led by our guide, we walked gingerly through the crowded, narrow dirt roads, and approached a small shack. My grandpa, brother, and I were invited first into the cramped, one-room hut, which belonged to Lily.
The room was pitch black, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out a dirt floor, a worn couch, and a small stove. Lily sat on her bed, an arm’s length away from us, holding a swaddled baby. With a soft smile, she handed me the sleeping infant and began to speak.
Through our guide, she told us how she and her husband, both HIV positive, share their tiny living quarters with their small children. Lily’s younger siblings were also living with her temporarily after their parents’ untimely death due to AIDS. We sat with Lily for what felt like hours, just listening. Finally, my grandpa, brother, and I said our goodbyes and waited while the rest of my family took their turns meeting Lily. One by one, they exited the small hut, their usual garrulousness silenced by the weight of Lily’s words. This young woman had held each member of my family, normally boisterous and prone to interruption, in rapt silence.
I believe that I learned to listen that day. Sure, I knew how to listen before. Or at least, I knew how to hear. I could sit down with anyone and hear their stories and nod and respond at the right times. Since that day with Lily I’ve noticed that it’s in those moments when my mouth is closed and my mind is wide open that I’ve learned the most from other people.
I believe that a person should know when to close her mouth, sit back, and focus on someone else. I believe in listening.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.