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Listen Up: #2 in the Dummy’s Guide to Conversation

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The problem with listening is the other people who keep talking

You’ve opened your pie hole and made like a human: shaping experience into words that can be understood by the humans around you (though it’s still a bit fuzzy how anyone understands anything). You anticipate being stopped dead in your tracks with realization or wonder, right in the middle of a conversation.

But there’s a step to bridge the two: you’ve got to listen.

The traditional problem with listening is other people: they keep talking. When they are talking, you are not at the center and they keep uttering words that don’t refer to you. For instance: they rarely mention your name, which you keenly listen for. They keep talking about their own experience. Why, oh why, don’t they stop talking and ask me about me?

Let me introduce you to three friends who knew something about listening: Mortimer Adler, Alain de Botton and Jesus the Christ. I met Mortimer Adler when I read his book, “How to Read a Book.” Why read a book on how to read a book? Because of the author’s crazy fascination with understanding. He didn’t just read, he annotated, he outlined and he synthesized. He labored over passages in long conversations with the authors. Plus, he made it sound like fun (which it is!). Of course, there is not enough time to do that with every book, so Adler picked what he called the “Great Books.” His Great Books program has gone in and out of style over years, depending on your politics and your conclusions about who qualifies as worth reading.

Alain de Botton writes readable books that satisfy his curiosity and pull his readers into the vortex of questions he counts as friends. If you’ve ever wondered how electricity gets to your house or what is the process behind producing biscuits (that is, cookies) or why Proust is worth reading or why Nietzsche was not a happy-go-lucky guy, de Botton is the author you want.

Jesus the Christ knew something about listening, despite being both God and man. His human condition opened a limiting opportunity which in turn caused him to steal away for hours to converse with the God of the universe. I go into depth on this in Listentalk. But the point is that prayer, which is ultimately more about listening than talking, was a preoccupation of the man who was God.

Listening opens us to hearing—which sounds like “duh” except for when you examine your own listening practices and realize how often you are thinking of something else entirely when your spouse/child/boss/friend/neighbor appears to be talking. But to really hear, to be crazy to understand, to be curious and to be committed to connection opens us to the place where we can be stopped dead in our tracks.


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