Is the art of listening dying?

Are the relationships too many people have with their notebooks and cell phones (same thing?) ruining the mastery of conversation—taking the place of interactions between humans?

How often have you been in a park, out to dinner, or even visiting with a friend and seen them as well as other people busy with their devices instead of talking to each other? In a nice restaurant not that long ago, I watched a mother and adult daughter sit through an entire meal without speaking to each other. Both had their phones on the table and ate while non-stop scrolling and tapping them.

We can’t blame the Millennials for what’s going on with us and technology, every generation has some guilt in putting cyber connections ahead of face-to-face ones. before people. 

Talking on the phone is difficult for me.

Without seeing the person’s face, it’s difficult to judge how the chat is proceeding or when it should be their turn/my turn to talk. There is some stumbling and, “Oh, sorry you go ahead,” being said. But we are talking, using our words, not holding the phone with dead, empty air on either side of the line.

As a writer, I like exchanging emails because it’s as close to an in-person discussion as I feel I can get—I update you, you update me. Each listens to the other as we read the words on the page and then respond. When we receive an email or letter (One friend in another state resurrected the art of the birthday letter some years ago—what a gift!), we immerse ourselves in that person for the time it takes to read. When we know the friend well, we hear their voice in the words, we visualize their facial nuances in our mind’s eye, dow what their laughter looks like on their face.

For me, that is sometimes harder on the phone, which is a technical distraction.

Because phones are no longer tethered to the walls, we can be doing any number of other tasks while having a conversation. We can drive (such a bad idea), cook, clean, weed, shop, check out (rude to the cashier) … even (gross) use the bathroom, while chatting away with our friends. I do pretty well with my siblings, Jackie, Joey, and Joanne (Yes, three J’s and one R—another reason I felt different growing up—but that’s another blog!) on the phone, but I think that has to do with knowing—at least two of them, oh young sister—for fifty plus years.

Aren’t those activities a distraction and disservice to your friendships? Would you do those chores if they were sitting in your living room with you? I had a girlfriend visit who was in the throes of a new relationship. Instead of giving our limited time her undivided attention, she responded to every one of the very many texts from the beau, who knew we were together. Rude on both their parts and a step toward the death of listening, of being in the moment, by my friend.

I once had a boyfriend who lived in Germany. One weekend, I was at my parents’ helping Dad with an outside project. Mom opened the front door, “He’s calling.” My response, “I’m busy. He knows I’m busy.” “But he’s calling from Germany.” “I told him I would be busy, if you want to talk to him, go ahead.” Being me, I later relayed to him Mom’s determination to interrupt me, both admonishing him to listen when I say I won’t answer the phone and making him laugh at this redhead’s sheer stubborn ability to keep her word.

Helen, a dear neighbor and friend in Red Lodge, Montana, was the first friend to show me the art of a good conversation. To all the people who have and who do bless my life with great conversation, don’t take affront with me singling her out. There was something about a conversation with Helen, forty years my senior, that made me aware that having a good discussion is a skill that can be learned and should be taught.

My beloved Helen passed away some years ago. I yearn for her homemade crescent rolls, percolator coffee, and good visits in her sunny kitchen. Helen had the knack for asking the right questions at the right time, in the right manner. It’s a talent, this making an inquiry, waiting for and listening to the answer, and asking a follow up question. It has to be done with a finesse that doesn’t make the asker sound like a journalist or worse, an inquisitor. 

Good conversationalists aren’t the people who ask questions in rapid-fire sequence so you never have time to answer. You know those folks. They’ll ask a question, you’ll start to answer and boom, boom, boom, three more questions come landing at you with the precision of wildly shot mortars. Nor are the good ones those people who ask and then say uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah, as they impatiently wait to add their statement, focusing on what they say next, not on your response. They avoid delving into the reason behind your revelation of something perhaps deeply personal, and rather, state how they are experiencing the same feelings, thus moving the supposed heart-to-heart from you to them. 

You never get to finish your thoughts.

Not interrupting a person is another key ingredient of conversation. Interrupting, the same as when you are chronically late for meetings or get togethers, tells the other person that they are not important, what they are saying is not as critical as what you have to say. You aren’t listening to learn, but listening to be heard. 

If you find it truly necessary to interject, the next polite step is to say, “Sorry, you were saying …” and get the other person back on track.

Burt & Muggins love coffee, too, especially in Brussels, Belgium.

Friends converse over coffee

What does it take to be a good listener?

  • Being in the present with another.
  • Not doing the impossible of multi-tasking—talking and oh say, paying bills.
  • Refraining from preparing your next statement while the other person is still speaking.
  • Deciding if what you have to say is something you want desperately to articulate to anyone in general for the sake of saying it or if it adds specifically to the current topic.

Jackie and I will often trade the lead on phone calls, chattering away until one of us realizes we’ve dominated the talk and says, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you.” Of course, being sisters, there are times one has said to the other, “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

Good #conversation infuses your soul. Click To Tweet

During my last trip to Red Lodge, I had two face-to-face times with girlfriends I hadn’t seen for two years. Oh the joy! Food, friendship, a leisurely lunch or an evening in Jackie’s visitor’s haven—the cozy Nest. Ours was winding, arbitrary, undistracted dialogue interspersed with enthusiastic bouts of laughter. It was listening done by each person, responses to conversation … it was truly being with in the present.

Soul rejuvenation.

On our three trips to Wales, Jackie and I repeatedly witnessed people being in the here and now with each other. Not that the tech-interruptions aren’t occurring, I’m sure they are, but what we saw time and again were people conversing and enjoying each other. Even as we tried to take advantage of wifi whenever we could to stay in touch with spouses, we realized that our heads-down-at-our-phones was the exception to what was going on, it was not the rule.

What happens to us when you’re immersed in a culture that is immersed in the moment is that you relax into being with them to soaking in the atmosphere, listening to the lift and lilt of your language being spoken with a whole new twist.

Yes, soul rejuvenating to be sure.

Good discourse revives me. Listening intently to the speaker, choosing to say what’s on my mind when it fits the moment, being there with a friend. When I take the time to focus on the present, to listen without an agenda, my life is greatly enriched. Do you find that to be your best version of listening?

What do you think makes a good conversation? A good conversationalist?

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*Expanded from a previous post – I keep learning more about how to be a good conversationalist.