Posted: 10 Nov 2012 07:30 PM PST
Increasingly people don’t really listen to each other. In 2006, researchers reported, “A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985.” The average number of confidants had dropped from three to two.
A 2011 study found that when asked to list the names of people they had discussed “important matters” with over the previous six months, about 48 per cent of participants listed only one name.
Rarely do people in the modern world ask probing questions, such as: Why? And, why not?
Instead they tell stories, gossip, discuss sports, talk about their children, engage in intellectual discourse, or stay on the surface in some other way. No wonder the martini, the symbol of shallow 1950’s cocktail parties, has made a big comeback!
The explosion of the Internet and the use of cell phones have aggravated these trends. People interact more, but they do so more quickly, briefly, and superficially.
In response, some people simply stop talking. A “quiet” daughter of a friend once explained her quietness by saying, “Mom, don’t you realize people talk all the time without ever saying anything?”
Others respond by almost always talking about themselves.
People indicate they understand what the other said by talking about how they’ve had a similar experience. That form of empathy is better than none, but hardly constitutes deep listening.
Jacob Needleman once said, “A real revolution needs to start with a ‘listening movement.’” I agree.
Years ago a friend and I had lunch weekly for one hour and divided the time equally. First one talked spontaneously for 30 minutes about whatever was on his mind. Then we reversed roles. We did that for a few months and each of us seemed to find it valuable, but for some reason, we stopped.
Recently another friend and I tried a similar approach. This time we agreed that the other could ask clarifying questions, but the focus would be on one or the other. Repeatedly I found myself interrupting the focus by talking about myself. Old habits linger.
As much as I complain about the lack of deep listening, I’m often guilty of not being a good listener myself. Sitting in my Inbox are a number of unanswered emails from people I care about and who care about me. And one dear friend told me weeks ago that he wants to talk on the phone and I haven’t found time to do it.
So I promise to be a better listener – whether or not the other wants to listen to me.
The art of listening is fading for many reasons. Chief among them I suspect is growing economic insecurity. As competition intensifies for decent jobs, people learn to be careful about what they say. This caution often starts in families where children learn to fear disapproval and in school where students learn to curry favor with teachers.
These habits carry over into all spheres even when the risk to advancement is absent.
Naked ambition is another reason for lack of openness. People want to get ahead. So they guard what they reveal.
Take President Obama, for example. A friend recently accused him of being a “phony.” At first, I reacted defensively. But the more I reflected on the issue, the more I remembered instances when I did not totally trust that Obama and his close associates were being completely honest, though I consider him more authentic than most politicians. I’ve tended to excuse him for such actions due to the need to get re-elected. But now that he’s achieved that goal, maybe we’ll find out more about what really motivates him.
On election night, CNN’s White House correspondent reported that Obama’s aides told her that in the future they will “take it on the road” to rally popular support for their proposals. During the summer, Obama said that if the Republicans refuse to compromise, he will “go around them.” During his election night speech, he spoke of the need for citizens to remain engaged between elections. So perhaps he will more fully use his position as a community-organizing tool, as he mentioned during his very first electoral campaign.
We may soon learn to what degree he’s motivated by ego and his “place in history” compared to compassion for others. Then again, separating out those motives is not easy. And going down in history as a great President will probably require mobilizing the grassroots to overcome Republican opposition.
Doing so will likely also require a vigorous effort to elect Democrats to the House in 2014, which Obama did not do during this election, to the chagrin of many Democrats. I can only assume that his polling found that running against Congress as Truman did in 1948 was problematic with swing voters who don’t like hyper-partisanship.
But now that Obama has been re-elected, if the Republicans don’t decide to be flexible, he’ll probably need to be more honest. Fox News coverage of Obama’s election-night speech suggests that the right-wing radicals will persist, for Fox barely discussed the speech after broadcasting it.
Or maybe we’ll have to wait until after he leaves office to get a better read on the “real Obama.”
Myself, I no longer want to be recognized as a “great man,” as my mother repeatedly told me I would be. I do believe the world would be in much better shape if more people were more like me. I am self-confident. I would, for example, be glad to serve as President of the United States.
But the world is on a much different wavelength than I am. Soul mates are few and far between. I may have accomplished as much as I can in the material world.
So I’m going to stop trying to make things happen. I’ll float trial balloons from time to time, make myself available to collaborate if and when such partnerships are possible, and go with the flow. It looks like a promising collaboration is developing with the January 19 Social Transformation Using the Three-Fold Path workshop. The planning committee is proceeding in fine form without me while I’m in Mexico for two months.
But mostly I plan to read some great books (like Their Eyes Were Watching God), develop some better close relationships, and maybe write a memoir, whose working title is No Secrets to Conceal.
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