Shut Up and Listen

CBS Sunday Morning was a complete surprise for me when I stopped being responsible for the worship on Sunday morning. How had I survived without it?

I knew about Charles Kuralt, and had read some of his journalism, namely On the Road.. I actually went to his cabin in Montana while I was working at a hospital there one summer and heard the legend. He literally was “on the road” in more ways than one.

I was introduced to CBS Sunday Morning late in the tenure of Charles Osgood and enjoyed his bow-tie quirkiness. And I struggled to transition to Jane Pauley, like some folks do when you change priests in a parish. But I have learned to love her, her style and presence. And the anchor of hearing the trumpet sound of Wynton Marsalis always cues my attention each Sunday at nine, right after I give thanks that I am not sitting on top of a congregation in this crazy bifurcated nation. Truth is, the division over race, gender, and sexuality has always been there, but just not as uncivil.

I enjoy most of the stories that air on this show, particularly Steve Hartman who tends to do the human interest angle that brings a smile and warms my heart. Today, the segment that caught my interest was an opinion piece by Dan Lyons, who was also hawking his new book. He was encouraging us to listen more and speak less. It was expressed in a terse manner by four letters: STFU. I calmed it down a bit by translating: Shut Up and Listen.

The point is still made, and apparently needs to be, as we have become a nation of “over-talkers”. I am reminded of the comedic Seinfeld/David take on “close-talkers” but this is no laughing matter.

It is more productive to ask rather than tell. To listen rather than talk.

Lyons says that we are wired to talk and fill up the space. He claims that social media’s effect is to train us to respond rather than pause to seek to understand the perspective of the “Other”. And, he goes further to point out that in the social media arena, one’s value is measured by how many followers one has, how much attention one attracts by putting out one’s comments and opinions.

Lyons notes how people who are deemed to be wise ask more questions than they proclaim, that they famously take copious notes on the thoughts of others. He points to Barack Obama and Richard Branson as famous examples of using silence and listening carefully.

My early education as a minister was learning how to listen. That was always in tension with the other discipline one is taught in seminary: proclaiming, speaking, or preaching. They seemed to me to be in creative tension, healthy, in that one was careful in how one communicated thoughts and ideas, but also was equally careful as to how one attended to what others were saying, especially when engaged in pastoral care and therapy.

Carl Rogers provided me a basic listening technique of paraphrasing what one was hearing from another person, in order to check and see if you were getting the message clearly. The cliche line was “what I hear you saying is….” followed by your best effort at capturing the message being delivered but also looking for the feelings and emotions connected. This less mechanically delivered remains one of my best tools for clarifying what a person means and intends. Paraphrasing to check to see if you are interpreting the message being sent is a great starting point.

In my training as a coach, the emphasis was on asking the right question that draws the other into a deeper understanding of the situation. The word most coaches use is “probing”, but I prefer a more playful word like “diving” as if I am diving deeper into the stuff of this person, not giving answers or advice, which is the deadly sin of coaching. Rather, I want to dive in, deeper and deeper, driven by my native superpower, curiosity. My best teacher, Chuck Gerkin, who earned his stripes at Grady Hospital, the heartbeat of Atlanta, told me early on that the question that will carry you far is a simple one; what’s going on?. That phrase still comes to mind when I am talking with a client, another person, or a friend and it brings a thankful smile. What’s going on?, indeed. Shades of Marvin Gaye.

Finally, in consulting, specifically in organizational development, one of the leading theorists. Bernie Schein, offered a powerful image to me for listening to folks in a business context, that of, humble inquiry. I admit I loved the term the first time I read it in Bernies’ classic text by the same name, Humble Inquiry. Rather than hawking some reworked technique of how one asks a series of questions, and in what sequence, Bernie got to the heart of the matter by naming the very starting point of interaction…humility.

Humility implies that you know that the person with whom you are engaging is a person of intrinsic worth. It’s not dependent on where they happen to be in some corporate hierarchy or the number of prestigious degrees they have behind their name. Rather, one comes to the encounter with a sense of the value of this person’s unique perspective. The humility has to do with the deep realization that you don’t “know it all” and sincerely approach the “Other” as one who can teach you something if you will only listen and attend to what they are saying.

I have to pause to note that this humility is not a part of our current culture. Rather, there is often a contempt for the perspective of the other, particularly if they are coming from another point of view. People from the “left” hold those from the “right” in contempt, having no value, just as those from the “right” quickly charge those on the “left’ as being “woke”. There is no humility around. As they used to say about Elvis, “Humility has left the building!”.

I hope we will begin by listening and heeding the admonition of Dan Lyons: Listen instead of talking. The bottom line here is to practice the art of listening rather than speaking. Asking good questions out of curiosity and clarifying one’s understanding of the point of view of the other is paramount to this quest in listening. Try it next time you are with another person, or in a group. Exercise your ability to listen well. Not only will you potentially learn something, but your companion will feel valued. For me, this is a spiritual exercise.

As the signature Sun logos of CBS Sunday Morning ended this segment on listening, Shhhhhhh.

2 thoughts on “Shut Up and Listen

  1. Thank you for this. As a lifelong journalist I found that the right question, followed by profound listening, was the only way to get the subject to open up.

    BTW: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” was a protest song.

    Liked by 1 person

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