Saturday, October 25, 2003

Thought of the Day: The problem with listening
I finally pinpointed my problem with listening, as ungracious as it sounds. As I mentioned, I'm rereading Anna Deavere Smith's Talk To Me, a visionary work about communication in media and politics. In it, Smith eloquently talks about the importance of trying to hear people--not just listen to their words but try to hear what's happening behind them. (Funny, we usually talk about "hearing but not listening"--and yet I think the reversal in meaning in that sentence works.) As I noted earlier, Smith says that this sometimes happens when a speaker's syntax runs off the rails, and so she transcribes her various interviews verbatim, with all the um's and run-on sentences of some of the most articulate people in Washington captured on the page. I'd been thinking about this some more after hearing Mitch Albom speak at Borders here on Michigan Ave. on Monday. He steered my thinking away from the power structures of business and politics with which I am occupied as a journalist, and back toward the countless "ordinary people" who have fascinating stories to tell and whose insignificant (as it seems to them) lives go mostly unchronicled, while boring celebrities are amplified endlessly. (Albom's new novel is about one such person, based on his uncle, who felt his life didn't amount to much but goes to heaven and meets people who prove him wrong). It renewed my commitment to go out and tell unexpectedly interesting stories about unexpectedly interesting people. Which only happens by listening. A related idea still camping out in my brain was about technology, which, as Quentin Schultze points out, does nothing to improve our listening, only our "messaging." All the sales pitches about new communication gadgets entice us to express ourselves or to fiddle with buttons, at the expense (they don't mention) of becoming better listeners and consequently better people. And so the need is plain for patient, selfless, curious listening to people and the truth that lies in their stories.

But as I was thinking it over, I identified the cause of my minor discomfort with this mission to listen, which I felt guilty about but want to get down on paper (or in bytes). If you believe, as my fellow Calvinists (including Schultze) always have, that all humans are inherently corrupted by sin to some extent, what caveat does that add to our listening? How much does listening serve to facilitate another person's self-absorption? Because of our fall into sin, everyone is prone to deceit and distortion in our communication, whether out of pride, greed, ignorance, or carelessness. We miscommunicate to serve ourselves or out of oblivion to truth. Most of us do not do this to the grotesque degree of Ken Lay in the last year of Enron's existence, but at moments here and there in daily life, our communication can obscure as much as it enlightens. The optimistic humanism of Smith and Albom--who tend to believe that our better angels are what invariably shine through when the human spirit is allowed to come up for air in moments of connection between people, leaves little room for a caution about discernment when we listen, about how much to become absorbed in people's stories and how much to remain detached so as not to follow them when they stray from the truth. (This is why, as much as I am dubious about the notion of a journalist's "objectivity," it is a useful reminder not to speak too definitely from one point of view). The reason I feel guilty about saying this is that the message of Smith and Albom seems so pure and so righteous, and it mostly is: we must be listeners in life, living with patience, open-mindedness, and empathy in a fast-paced world. But at the risk of being too cynical, I'm going to keep reading their books with this grain of salt: humans are dually, maddeningly capable of communicating truth and of missing it.

-Previous Thought: As things get 'better,' empathy gets worse
-Earlier Thought: Are people basically good or evil?
-Earlier Thought: The difference between 'effective' and 'good' communication

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