Are You Listening? Really?

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When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. Dalai Lama XIV

So many stories if we just listen. Sitting next to someone on a plane, we often stick earbuds in our ears to make sure they don’t prattle on about nothing.  But sometimes there is much to be learned from hearing—and really listening—to what others have to say.

Some of us are experts at listening. Lou, a friend and former co-worker, not only hears what the person is saying but engages his entire body: he leans forward, plants his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees,  and looks the speaker in the eye. He nods in agreement. You know he cares about what is being said.

I think of Lou, and I want to emulate him. I am as guilty as anyone, often not really paying attention.

How many times have I sat through a rabbi’s dracha —sermon— and spent too much of my time checking my watch? Even when I have signed up for a lecture sponsored by my community’s book circle, I often find myself thinking about what I need to do later that day rather than focusing on the topic being discussed. I have missed much by being not more mindful.

Our failure to focus often carries into our daily conversations. We often are not listening to what the person is saying but rather waiting for the moment to express our own “pearls of wisdom.” And, what is worse,  what we want to say takes the conversation in a different direction. “That’s great,” we comment. “That reminds me of the time I…..” Note the emphasis is on the word “I.” To quote John Wayne, we are “short on ears and long on mouth.”

We can learn from Lou and other good listeners. Young adult author Sarah Desson describes them well: “They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”

How much richer our lives can be if we allow the speaker to continue talking.

Larry and I recently spent time with a group of friends in in Key West, Florida.  Before the trip, Larry had played pickleball with several people in the group, and we both had shared time around the pool and eaten lunch together. But being together for a week gave us more time to learn about each other.

Stories abounded. One woman had contracted polio when she was six, just months before the polio vaccine had come out. A very attractive woman who was visiting from England had become an actress in her sixties and is a regular on a Welch soap opera. A couple’s son had left his career as a graphic designer behind and became a tattoo artist. Several in the group had served in the military and regaled us with their stories about their experiences in basic training, in fighter planes, in submarines. Again and again, I thought to myself, “Who knew?”

Four days into our trip, Larry said to me, “I love hearing everyone’s stories!” And so did I. So many stories, so much to learn. And as my friend Lynn tells me about her own life, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

In the months ahead, I will be sharing people’s stories with you.  My friend’s son, who we have known since childhood, is now a rabbi in New Orleans. A friend in our 55-plus active adult community has turned his lifelong interest in the Titanic into a post-retirement career, as he travels the world giving lectures on the infamous boat and its many passengers. A friend of mine, a thirty-eight year old resident Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home, was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak motorcycle accident when he was sixteen. Each has a story to tell, and we all can learn by listening.

At one of the recent meetings of my writer’s group, one of the members shared a poignant story she had written about woman she had met twenty years earlier on a train stuck outside of Washington, D.C.  The writer—who was not wearing earbuds to block out conversations with strangers—learned that the woman was recently married to her childhood sweetheart. A month before the wedding, he was in a terrible accident and had suffered traumatic brain injury. Despite warnings from friends and family to back out of the wedding, the young woman realized her vow to love one another through sickness and health was sealed before the ceremony. By the time she finished reading her story, many of us were in tears. “How did you learn so much about a complete stranger?” we asked. “I don’t know,” she answered. “She talked, I listened, and I remembered.” Good advice for all of us.

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