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Sep 04

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Is anyone listening?

Ever feel like you’re talking to a brick wall? The television comedy Frasier was one of the most popular TV series in US history. It’s been called “a thinking person’s comedy.” Reruns are ubiquitous, about six episodes daily in our area. Frasier Crane, the protagonist, is a caring, sensitive, cultured – but insecure and sometimes pompous – Seattle radio psychiatrist who always greets his callers with, “I’m listening.” Yet sometimes he becomes so wrapped up in himself that he tunes others out.

He’s not alone. In one amusing scene, Frasier’s ex wife, Lilith (also a psychiatrist) tries to converse with Frasier’s brother Niles (yet another psychiatrist) about an especially weighty matter. Niles, focused on a video game, doesn’t pay her sufficient attention, prompting Lilith to exclaim, “Is there a chair here I could talk to?”

I confess that my wife, Meg, sometimes has to use Lilith’s line to get my attention. Mind you, I don’t confess that it’s as often as she might claim! But it’s easy to focus on my interests and not hear – or fully process – her words. Once, planning a meal, she asked if we had vegetables in the refrigerator. Seeing none of the vegetables I like (carrots, celery, zucchini, tomatoes, broccoli), I replied “No.” Turned out we had artichokes, asparagus, and other veggies that were her favorites. Perhaps distracted – that alibi satisfies me if it does you – I didn’t take the time to think through her interests.

Listening is a powerful form of affirmation and an important tool in understanding and communication. Solomon, a wise Jewish king, wrote, “What a shame, what folly, to give advice before listening to the facts!”

Have you ever been around someone who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world? They probably knew how to listen. Medical ethicist Stephen Post writes in his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, “When we truly absorb another’s story, we are saying, ‘You count. Your life and feelings and thoughts matter to me. And I want to know who you really are.’” He claims that listening can help both the listener and the one listened to. New studies indicate: “Listening activates the part of our brains hardwired for empathy. … When we listen to others in pain, their stress response quiets down and their body has a better chance to heal.”

University of Minnesota rhetoric professor Ralph G. Nichols noted that a listener’s opposition to a speaker’s statement can hamper further listening. Nichols said a listener feeling stung often tries “to do three things simultaneously:

(1) calculate what hurt is being done to his own pet ideas; (2) plot an embarrassing question to ask the speaker; (3) enjoy mentally all the discomfiture visualized for the speaker once the devastating reply to him is launched.”

Sounds like a recipe for tuning out. Maybe for starting a war. Better to “hold your fire” advised Nichols. Reminds me of a biblical adage: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Your anger can never make things right in God’s sight.”

The International Listening Association (yep, they really exist) quips that conversation is “a vocal competition in which the one who is catching his breath is called the listener.” TV talking heads take note, please. The ILA also says, “History repeats itself because no one listens the first time.” Politicians and voters take note, please. Isn’t this a fascinating subject? Don’t you just love reading what I say about it? Oh, yes. What was that you wanted to tell me?

By Rusty Wright

 

photo courtesy of Stock.xchng

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