Everybody needs somebody to talk to. It's one of our deepest human needs. But canned entertainment has nearly killed the art of conversation, and frustrated talkers are turning more and more to professional listeners to satisfy their needs. Psychiatrists rake in extravagant sums listening to people's hangups; housewives "tell all" on call-in radio talk shows; problem "hot lines" are doing a land-office business. Why this dire shortage of good listeners? Is there anything we personally can do about it?
Dear, the plumber didn't come. And you know that little leak behind the water heater..." "Umm hmm." "Well, the pipe burst this morning and flooded the whole basement..." "Shhh! It's third down and goal to go!" "... and some of the wiring got wet and nearly electrocuted poor Fluffy..." "Rats! A touchdown!... They should've made the tackle!" "... but the vet says he'll be good as new in a week or so..." "Hey, get me another beer, will you?" "Then the plumber finally came and he says he's so happy our basement flooded, because now he can afford to take his vacation a month early..." "Aren't you listening? I said I need another beer!" "... and Stanley, I'm leaving you. The plumber and I are flying to Acapulco in the morning." "Will you cut out your eternal yakking and get me another beer?! The trouble around here is that nobody ever listens to me!" Nobody ever listens to me. How many times has that sad complaint been voiced — or muttered, as the case may be? How many people go through life frustrated because there is nobody — not a mate, or a neighbor, or even a bartender — who will take the time to really listen to what they have to say? How many people develop exciting new neuroses in order to get someone else to pay attention to them? How many overdose or jump off bridges?
A Conversational Vacuum
The small talk that sometimes passes for conversation doesn't fulfill anybody's deep-down needs. If someone says, "How are you?" only a social incompetent would reply with a detailed list of symptoms. Yet really that is what we all want to do — uncork all the thoughts that bubble up inside and share them with a compatible human being. Cocktail party inanities have become a tired cliché, but there is no revival of "coffee and conversation in the parlor" on the horizon, either. Perhaps it's because the parlor has been taken over by "talk" shows on the tube, endless news on the radio, or mood music on the tape deck. To escape the boredom of the parlor we go to movies, or visit friends or relatives. While we are there, we watch more TV or listen to more records or play silly games that mitigate the need for real intimate conversation. And when we do finally get around to talking, sometimes we end up holding a contest instead of a conversation. We mercilessly interrupt, or chatter on while the other person desperately tries to get a word in edgewise. Neither of us really listens. The book EgoSpeak laments this universal lack: "We hear it said that conversation is a 'lost art,' as if all we need to do to regain it is to practice it, or to try to think more before we verbalize, or to study a dozen other rules preached in innumerable volumes. Quite the reverse is called for, yet is increasingly ignored — listening. Unless we listen to what the other person is saying, we cannot reply to him effectively, nor can we take the next logical step in the conversation and permit it to flow freely and effortlessly" (Edmond G. Addeo and Robert E. Burger, EgoSpeak, New York: Bantam Books, 1973, p. xiv). Caren Rubio explains part of this problem: "We think four or five times as fast as others speak. What's more, we have a psychological need to be heard rather than to hear" (Catholic Digest, December 1974, p. 4). The authors of EgoSpeak elaborate: "Listen to each person tip off his inner conflicts, his gnawing fears, his hidden frustrations, simply by the way he behaves conversationally. Observe how each person invariably swings the conversation around to what he wants to talk about.... Then realize how you are doing the same thing" (p. xv).
The Gift of Listening
Is there a way to escape these conversational dead ends? Can we avoid "ego-speaking" and begin to really listen to others? Good listening is motivated by love, or an outgoing concern for the speaker. Everyone gives at least lip service to the idea that "it's better to give than receive." Sometimes, the greatest gift we could possibly give another human being is to shut up and listen to him. The need for a listener is sometimes so great it drives people to do crazy things. One lonely old man was reported to have turned himself in to the police and confessed multiple horrendous crimes he hadn't actually committed — just to have someone to listen to him. Everybody around us has the same needs that old man had, but they don't usually show them so dramatically. If we are really concerned about the people around us, really want to befriend them and become involved with them on a personal level, that concern will come through in our listening. Our listening will become a form of giving. Instead of steering the conversation around to our interests, our children, our latest trip, we will become adept at drawing out their experiences. We will be playing just the opposite of the games enumerated in EgoSpeak. Instead of chiming in with the inevitable "That reminds me of...." we will begin to say, "That's an interesting way of putting it — what exactly did you mean by that?" We will begin to keep quiet until the person we are talking with finishes his train of thought — and we will stay quiet a few seconds longer just to make sure he is done, and to give ourselves time to assimilate what the person has said. Our conversation will be a form of cooperation instead of a contest.
Needed: A Sounding Board
When some people have troubles, they sit down and write a long letter to their favorite advice columnist. Whether or not it ever gets mailed, the mere act of putting their thoughts down on paper usually helps. Sometimes it clarifies things to such an extent that "Dear Abby" never has to bother answering; they have come up with the answer all by themselves. Sometimes a good listener can provide the same help. He can quietly function as a sounding board so someone else can get his thoughts out in the open and examine them objectively. Once he has done that, the solution to his quandary may fall into place automatically.
But Does It Really Help?
You might honestly wonder whether or not it helps someone just to sit there and listen to him express his feelings. Aren't you merely reinforcing him in his "bad attitude"? No, not really in many cases. The late Dr. Haim Ginott, a psychologist, did much research into this area. He found that what he called the "language of acceptance" can work virtual miracles in human relationships. By listening to someone without judging or condemning his or her feelings (see Matthew 7:15 for more on this), but rather accepting them, you help the person see his situation objectively. Then he can come up with his own solutions, and effect his own changes. Dr. Ginott taught that it wasn't "until a [person's] angry, hurt feelings are out in the open, until they are heard and accepted, that he is free to change" (Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Liberated Parents. Liberated Children, New York: Avon Books, 1974, p. 23). He believed that all feelings are acceptable; all actions are not. Once a person is aware of his true feelings about something, he has the upper hand. He is able to change them or accept them as the situation demands.
Should You Always Give Advice?
One of the worst temptations any conversationalist faces is the urge to give advice. And one of the wisest pieces of advice ever dished out by an experienced counselor is the following: "Whenever possible, I avoid telling [people] what to do and what not to do. Even when they ask for it, I postpone giving instant advice. I try to find out what they think about the situation and what alternatives they have considered. 1 encourage them to talk about their fears and hopes and to risk stating opinions and making decisions" (Haim Ginott, Teacher and Child, New York: Avon Books, 1972, p. 217). Giving advice may be tempting, but the results are sometimes not worth it. There are many scriptures scattered throughout the book of Proverbs admonishing us to take good advice, but not too many telling us to give it. One of the latter states that "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear" (Prov. 25:11-12). But there aren't too many really receptive, responsive, "listening" ears like this around. In many cases, advice creates resentment in the receiver. The "Please, I'd-rather-figure-it-out-for-myself!" reaction is common, even though the person receiving the advice may not voice it outwardly. Secondly, even if somebody takes good advice, it may only alleviate a symptom of his problem instead of the problem itself. That must be worked through — alone — by the person himself. And advice can degenerate into a game of "Why Don't You — Yes But" as immortalized by Eric Berne in Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, Inc., p. 116). In this diversion the person seeks advice only for the satisfaction of proving to the giver that it is worthless. Or he may want advice. so he won't have to be responsible for the decision he makes. A person usually has his own storehouse of solutions he has gleaned from experience, from sermons he has heard in church, from reading, from his own personal Bible study. He can instantly apply them to anybody else's problem. The trick is to help him see his own problem in the same objective light. A good listener is able to stifle the urge to give advice, and let the other fellow talk until he clarifies his own needs. Christ said, "How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?" (Matt. 7:4.) And Proverbs 18:13 adds that "If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." So even if a listener can't resist giving some sort of advice, it should be well after he has thoroughly heard and mulled over what is on the speaker's mind. Finally, the apostle James adds: "Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak..." (James 1:19).
Cast Your Bread on the Waters
If you begin to practice this kind of listening, the rewards will be enormous. People will enjoy your company. You may find yourself spending entire evenings in intimate conversation instead of aimless pastimes. You will be able to keep the media at bay long enough to establish meaningful relationships with your family and friends. And eventually, hopefully, they will show their gratitude by reciprocating in kind. And you will rarely if ever find yourself muttering that nobody will ever listen to you.