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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

The Art of Listening

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

What would the world be like today had Adam been a better listener, if he had listened to God and not been talked into swiping that taboo apple? Adam was a precursor to the men I know -- a million years later and they still don't listen.

How do we know whether mankind would be suffering less today had Adam only listened? What if he heard wrong and Eve actually said, "Say, Adam, hand me that pomegranate?" Just think of all the trouble that would've been avoided.

God got his revenge though; rumor has it that the Adam's Apple you can see on today's men was originally caused by a piece of the forbidden fruit getting stuck in Adam's throat. Served him right. Serves them all right. They're still trying to figure out how to shave around that thing.

Adam may have been the first human to turn a deaf ear, but he certainly wasn't the last. My kids didn't listen to me any more than I listened to my mom. And husbands are notorious for nodding instead of listening when wives talk. An anonymous pundit wrote, "If you want your spouse to listen and pay strict attention to every word you say, talk in your sleep."

According to writer Anna Wickhaur, "The true male has never yet walked/Who liked to listen when his mate talked."

Listening appears to be a dying art for all but the most charismatic people. One of the main reasons they're charismatic is because they listen. More than a century ago, a young woman who had dined with both William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli explained why she preferred Disraeli: "When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England."

The finest minds in history knew the importance of listening. Thoreau said, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer."

History repeats itself because no one listens the first time.
Listening is the simplest form of communicating with someone -- what's a talker without a listener? In his book, "The Lost Art of Listening" (Guilford Press), Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D., notes, "Nothing hurts more than the sense that people close to us aren't really listening to what we have to say. We never outgrow the need to communicate what it feels like to live in our separate, private worlds of experience. That's why a sympathetic ear is such a powerful force in human relationships, and why the failure to be heard and understood is so painful." He states that "The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person."
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"The Lost Art of Listening"
There's an actual society devoted to helping people listen better: The International Listening Association. Based on information supplied by Ph.D's Larry L. Barker and Kittie W. Watson's book "Listen Up" (St. Martin's Press), the I.L.A. notes the 10 most irritating listening habits:
1. Interrupting the speaker.
2. Not looking at the speaker.
3. Rushing the speaker and making him feel that he's wasting the listener's time.
4. Showing interest in something other than the conversation.-
5. Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing his thoughts.
6. Not responding to the speaker's requests.
7. Saying, "Yes, but . . .," as if the listener has made up his mind.
8. Topping the speaker's story with "That reminds me. . ." or "That's nothing, let me tell you about. . ."
9. Forgetting what was talked about previously.
10. Asking too many questions about details.
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Listen Up
Wallis Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor, listened very well and a king gave up his throne for her. Pamela Churchill Harriman not only listened well, she followed up by thoroughly researching the interests of the current man of her dreams so she could respond intelligently. It never failed.

Geisha girls, as well as the great courtesans of history, all listened attentively. Why do you think Cleopatra was so irresistible to men? Not only did she listen in many languages, she excelled in the most foreign language of them all, The Language of Men.

Perhaps Dorothy Parker was referring to Cleopatra when sbe said, "That woman speaks eighteen languages and she can't say no in any of them."

In their normal relationships, people will find the benefits of attentive listening to be enormous and immediate. Creative people often consider their loved one as a muse, though the loved one has only to listen while the speaker clarifies his own thoughts.

While Fran Liebowitz observed, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. It's waiting," my own observation is more succinct: The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and the way to a woman's is through her ears.

© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"April 8, 2006 column

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