- Pauline Hoffmann
I'm all ears. (Don't sell yourself short.)
Do you remember the week before Thanksgiving? My newsletter dealt with holiday hate and asked if it was inevitable. I also noted that the week after that (last week), I would talk about listening and hearing.
Perhaps, astute reader, you noticed that I didn't write a newsletter last week. Correct. It's the end of the semester and with the end of the semester comes chaos. Students think they are the only ones who feel it. They are incorrect.
I do want to unpack listening and hearing. I often speak about both and tell people that to be an effective communicator, you need to both listen and hear. Often my audience will say, "they are the same thing." They are also incorrect. (My audience is not stupid. Remember, we are not stupid.)
Hearing is what we are probably all doing when someone speaks (or when we passively look at nonverbal cues like folded arms, crossed legs, etc.). I hear that noises are coming from your mouth and I see that your lips are moving, but I am not necessarily "listening." Perhaps I am waiting until your lips and the noises stop so that I may jump in because what I have to say is obviously much more important than your feeble utterances. Perhaps you have alienated me in some way and I have just tuned you out. Perhaps I am bored. Perhaps......any number of distractions or "noise" is preventing me from truly focusing on your words, expressions and actions.
Listening, on the other hand, involves action. I need to truly focus and pay attention to what it is you are saying, how you are saying it, why, where, when, all of the things. Are you crying as you share your story? Are you laughing? Angry? Frustrated? Do you seem level-headed and calm but your stance and facial expressions tell me you are anything but?
Over a decade ago I read an editorial in the New York Times written by someone I can no longer remember (and I have been trying to find this damn editorial so I can properly cite it!!!!!!!). He was writing about the voices of the marginalized and was railing against the phrase "giving voice to the voiceless." Since reading that editorial I, too, have railed against that phrase and I am not alone (Anahi Ayala Iacucci, JoAnna Haugen are just two voices speaking out against this phrase). The writer I would reference if I could noted that to say that you are giving a voice implies that one didn't have a voice to begin with. In fact, he argued, the opposite was true. They have voices; they've just been ignored. They have been neither heard nor listened to. (I do recognize the irony in this paragraph - a writer noting that he has a voice and hasn't been listened to and me not remembering who the hell he is. Shame on me, to be sure.)
Imagine that for a second. You have been screaming and no one is listening. Sure, some people may nod politely or even say something like, "thoughts and prayers," or "I understand" when in fact they have no understanding whatsoever. Imagine not being understood and not understanding how to rephrase or restate in a way that aids understanding. Imagine just being ignored and/or forgotten.
And then let's talk about trust. Are you going to trust someone who has repeatedly ignored you but who suddenly seems to care? Of course you aren't. You are likely immune to any correspondence from those people.
That's your lesson as we go into the holidays. Have you had interactions in the past in which you may have pooh-poohed, laughed at, belittled, or ignored someone? Or have they done this to you? Think about how you might interact with them now.
I mentioned my interactions with my brother in the last newsletter. We've reached an understanding and that's good. What if one of us violates that agreement and decides to talk about the Covid vaccine (or other vaccines), for example? How do you approach that?
How does that work? Focus on what that person is saying, try to understand why they are saying it or where they are getting the information, focus on your relationship with this person, focus on the truth. Again, it's not the time for you to show off all the fancy polysyllabic (tee hee) words you know. Nor is it the time for you to recite your CV/resume.
That does not mean you agree nor does it mean that you condone behaviors. It means you are making an effort to understand the rationale behind the thinking. Also, recognize your own biases and shortcomings. Could you be wrong in some way?
Think, too, about whether or not the behavior, phrases, thinking is dangerous or just shortsighted. If it's dangerous you might need to take action. If it's just shortsighted, perhaps let it go. If you have a friend who believes in aliens, that's probably not the worst thing unless your friend is risking his life sitting in the backyard in the cold waiting to be abducted or some similar scenario. (And aliens may exist - the U.S. government has declassified documents associated with aliens. Conveniently, PBnJ (Pauline, Ben and Just the facts) did a podcast episode about this topic.). If, however, your friend is preventing his relatives from getting a lifesaving vaccine that's another story that may require big figurative guns. That may require that you listen to his concerns about why he feels this is the right treatment option. It will certainly require that you know the person well enough to know what will motivate or persuade him. It absolutely requires empathy, listening and trust.
Next week I will share a piece I wrote with a colleague, Dr. Xiaoning Zhang, for the Jandoli Institute. I would argue it also deals with listening but "listening" to data. (Data are friend, not foe.)
I welcome feedback, questions and concerns about my newsletter or any of the topics discussed. I have been approached about the idea of creating a space for people to talk about how to better listen and respond to people we may not agree with. It that's you, please let me know. I would be happy to do so! My initial thoughts are that we could run through real scenarios and discuss how best to handle situations, but I am flexible.