Recently my son Kevin and I traveled to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, to visit my brother Joe and his wife Wanda, an activity that he, my daughter Maureen and I have enjoyed for many years. Joe is the oldest in my family of eight siblings (four and four), and next year he will have completed his seventh decade. Despite that advanced age (haha), he continues to demonstrate the joie de vivre by his inquisitiveness, business interests and ability to converse about everything. His "elder" status is the reason Kevin extended his uncle's first name to “Josephus,” after the 1st century Jewish scholar!
We enjoy many aspects of this visit, among them the minimal traffic (I'm from New Jersey!), tranquil environs (I'm from New Jersey!!), Chica the miracle dog (who appeared out of nowhere several years ago, but somehow did so as a loyal, loving and well-behaved stray) and Wanda's delicious meals. But without question, the summit of each visit is the "opening night" dinner in the dining room, when we break bread (and the rest of Wanda's sumptuous repast) and launch "The Conversation."
This discussion lasts for hours. Actually, the entirety of each visit is one long conversation, occasionally interrupted by periods of sleep and an occasional boat ride. We can while away the time over any number of topics, and do so in the comfort of their sunroom, the tranquility on their deck or at a nearby convivial restaurant, in banter that is regularly enlivened by hearty laughter. Unlike the complex orchestration of ingredients needed for Wanda's gustatory delights, the recipe for a good conversation is simple: interesting people, interesting topic, talking and...
That last ingredient is often the most difficult for us, because of pride. In our eagerness to make a point--one that we, of course, think is the most important--we stop listening and very often cut off the point that another was eager to make. Either way, those willful actions deprive us of the opportunity to learn something new--and understand a point that is important to the other person. So everyone loses!
Another casualty of poor communication is that the person denied the opportunity to register her comment rightly concludes that her conversational partner(s) do not value her thoughts on the matter. That is disheartening.
In Jordan Peterson's book, 12 Rules for Life, he explains how listening is the key component of conversation. In the chapter pointedly titled, "Assume That the Person You are Listening to Might Know Something You Don't," the Canadian psychologist describes various behaviors that hijack a potential exchange of ideas, such that the hijacker wrests control and repeatedly clips the opposing party's comment (because it has become a competition) in order to make what he or she believes is the more important point. He recommends that before each party catapults their desired point they first pause to restate the comment made by the other participants. That makes clear the respect each conversant has for the other. It is easy for me to see the value of this tactic, particularly during emotionally-charged discussions pertaining to, for example, politics and culture, because it tells the other person that his comment has been heard--and that he matters. Peterson goes on to recommend that each participant in the conversation understand themselves to be explorers, each searching for the greater knowledge that awaits them at the end of the exploration (i.e., the conversation).
I've experienced conversations in which my point was repeatedly interrupted, and didn't like it one bit. If the matter was of sufficient importance to me, then I persisted and didn't relinquish the floor; but if I perceived it to have much less importance, then I gradually bowed out. If I did check out, then I would be sure to remember that experience for the next time I was with that person--and discuss it if we were friends. However, I know that I have been guilty of this behavior; and I try to keep that knowledge in mind during conversations, because I would like to be a good listener.
Returning to my "pride" comment, it is worth noting that Peterson asserts that insecurity is a common reason people do not listen. He explains that listening opens up the listeners to the new and different, experiences many perceive as threatening because they may challenge the worldview that shapes their identities. When I returned to graduate school for a degree in theology, I did so with a particular worldview that seemed right and with which I felt secure. It didn't take long, however, for that worldview to be challenged, as the students and professors conversed ourselves through ever-deepening exploration of the subject matter. With the careful guidance by the wise professors, usually through wonderfully stimulating discussions, I came away with a much richer understanding of myself, my faith, humanity and, well, life.
My school experience reminds me of the "Tale of the Empty Teacup." In this story a man visits a zen master, presumably in search of wisdom but whose mind is instead filled with his self-importance. Realizing how full the visitor is of himself and his own ideas, the master first invites him to share tea. After kneeling, the master begins pouring the tea into the visitor's cup; as it begins to overflow the visitor exclaims, "Stop! Can't you see the cup is full!" In response the master replies, "And so are you. Your mind is full and cannot learn anything new. Come back when your mind has been emptied."
The genius of Socrates is suggested by a phrase that has been attributed to him: "I know that I know nothing," because this humility combined with his natural inquisitiveness to learn motivated him to ask, search, explore and listen.
When we remain mindful of the dignity of others and humble in the knowledge of our own limitations, we will have less difficulty listening whenever we are in conversation.
The wisest man who ever lived urged us to "ask, seek and knock," in order receive, find and have opened to us the greatest life possible; but to maintain the necessary humility in order to value others, he also instructed us to "do to others what you would have them do to you."
I commit to listen more. Will you join me?