midpoint (2006-21)

Reflections on a Lost Art

Listen Up

by Stephanie Piper

I’m thinking of having a small medal made—a bronze ear, maybe—and presenting it to the next person I catch in the act of active listening.

It’s become a lost art, like lace making. Everyone admires it. No one wants to do it. It requires patience, and stillness. It requires energy. Most of all, it requires a shift of focus. To really listen, you have to forget yourself.

And who willingly does that? Let’s face it. In a typical 21st century conversation, there is a faintly audible, ever-present subtext: Is this about me?  

The poet Nikki Giovanni summed it up neatly: Just because people aren’t talking doesn’t mean they are listening, she said. Most of the time, it just means they’re waiting to speak. 

When I observe the few active listeners I know, I am struck by the steadiness of their gaze, the way they lean forward to engage without speaking a word. They seem, for the moment, to have abandoned their own agendas in order to better understand yours. And yours, judging from their undivided attention, is endlessly fascinating.

As a feature reporter for a daily newspaper, I used to get paid to listen. What I learned while filling up the lined pages of dozens of skinny notebooks was that people tell their stories best when the questions are brief and the listener is quietly attentive. Whenever I injected myself, chirpily seeking to establish rapport or to show off some arcane scrap of knowledge on the subject at hand, the interview would creak to a halt.

I learned to trust silence, that deep well from which the deepest truths eventually surface. Once I did an article about survivors coping with tragic loss. I interviewed a man whose daughter, a brilliant medical student, had died suddenly a year before. He had established a memorial scholarship in her name, and he described her accomplishments, his voice strong and confident. He spoke of the importance of moving forward, making some sense of the numbing misery. He spoke of facing grief and conquering it. And then he stopped, and we sat together for a long time on his flower-filled patio, and a single tear rolled down his cheek. He said nothing. I said nothing. Asked and answered. 

In the shelter for the poor and homeless where I work now, listening is a kind of ministry. I’ve come to see that it is as essential as the food and clothing and bus tickets we provide. The walls are thin here, and the stories drift back to my fund-raising office at the end of the hall: jobs lost, bridges burned, a family in ruins. The voices rise and fall in a daily litany of need and comfort. The volunteer counselors don’t talk much. They trust the silence; they let words settle. Sometimes, they find a way to pay the back rent or get the lights turned on again. Sometimes, the gift is simply their presence: peaceful, accepting, complete.

The world is full of ways to listen. Cell phones chime and chatter; iPods offer a non-stop personal serenade. In the car, it’s satellite radio; at home, it’s the mindless drone of TV. We learn to let the words wash over us, to discount the voices in our ears. Is this about me? No? Then forget it.

I think again about my medal, and what might be engraved on it. “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen,” Cat Stevens lamented in that golden oldie,  “Father and Son.” Maybe it wasn’t such bad advice after all.