There's more to listening than shutting your mouth

I Think some people are temperamentally predisposed to being good listeners. At least they seem that way, because they don't interrupt or talk about themselves a lot. On the other hand, maybe they're just shy, or they're not really thinking about what the speaker is saying.

I am not one of those people. I am an active listener. So active in fact, that I sometimes show I am "with" the speaker by finishing his or her sentences.

But after years of training as a psychologist, and years of living, I have gotten better. I have come to appreciate the skill of listening, both for its value and its rarity.

Living in an ambitious urban environment, I find that people are eager to talk about what they are doing. Sometimes it's hard to get a word in edgewise.

Periodic trips back home to the Midwest remind me that large numbers of people exist who are actually interested in what another person has to say. They understand that the opposite of speaking is not just waiting to speak.

Once in a while an experience comes along that reinforces my appreciation of the power of listening. One such took place in a Honda service waiting room. I was a frequent visitor there with one of my cars, so I usually went in with some paperwork, prepared to wait. On one of those visits, a small elderly lady sat down next to me. She wore gray wool house slippers and a plaid scarf covering white hair fixed in pin curls held with bobby pins.

I can't remember how the conversation started, but I soon found out that she too had grown up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As a youngster in the town of Deadwood, she remembered the grocer borrowing her sled in the winter to ferry packages up the steep hills of that old mining town. The major business of the town was the Homestake Gold Mine, but her father had emigrated from Germany and was a master craftsman. He did fine plaster work. Sixty years later, she still spoke of his work with pride.

In the hour we waited, I learned more about him, her mother, and her childhood in the 30s. I shared almost nothing about myself. I don't think the woman noticed. As I asked questions about those times, she remarked, "Oh, my - I haven't thought about that in years!"

I asked her what they wore in those days, what they ate, what games they played. I asked about how she made it to California. I learned about her son who lived far away. I learned that she lived alone in a little apartment and had a quiet life with a few friends who lived nearby.

I asked mostly about the past. "What things did you do for Christmas?" I could see that, just for a minute, she was back home in Deadwood, 8 years old, looking out the frosted window and waiting for her father to climb the wooden steps on the hillside with packages from the five and dime. Her answers were interesting, but watching her delight at going back to retrieve them was even more satisfying.

As a psychologist, I'm a trained listener. I know how to be quiet. I know how to ask helpful questions, guiding people to think about how to solve a problem. But it was a pleasure to use the same skills to help someone take a walk down memory lane. I never let her know what I did for a living; I didn't want her to think anything other than, "What a nice little visit!"

She must have, for when the clerk called her name, she paused for a minute and said, "I wish I could talk to you every day." For so many people, it is a rare gift to be able to tell their story and have someone really listen.

So simple, and so rare.

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