The Lost Art of Listening

Throughout life, I’ve noticed something different about my family. We end up in unexpected situations. During a childhood trip through Pennsylvania’s Amish country, we went from buying a piece of handmade furniture to spending an hour listening to an old Amish man’s reflections on life. When we visited Utah during my teens, we were invited to a Navajo youth rally… by the chief himself, as it turned out. One day at the grocery store, the man at the fish counter told me his life story when I just meant to order tilapia.

It’s become a regular part of life. When I first moved out and found that it continued to happen to me even when I was alone, I tried to figure out what was so different about us. It took a few months of reflecting before I finally figured it out. It’s the art of listening.

In a world in which so many people are busy and have appointments to keep, it’s sometimes hard to find people who just like to listen. Keep the cell phone tucked in a pocket. Look with interest at the other person. Let them say what it is that they need to say without interrupting.

When that happens, sometimes the most remarkable stories come out.

During our early summer adventure, my husband and I visited the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. When we found out that there are guided tours through the museum, we rushed to get there in time. One had just started when we arrived, so we hurried to catch up to the crowd of 40 people and the elderly guide wearing a portable microphone and speaker. Like all of the other tour guides there, he’s retired navy and glad to share their amazing history.

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For the first two exhibits, the crowd stayed intact, but before long, it was obvious that it wouldn’t stay that way. Our guide frequently paused for ten to twenty seconds in mid-sentence, seemingly for a moment to think before continuing with his thought.

Evidently, the pauses were too much for most of the people. While we stood at the second exhibit, people started trailing off. About fifteen remained. At the third, more wandered away. We ended up with six. By the time we finished with the fourth, it was just my husband and me.

Our guide didn’t seem surprised. He told us that we weren’t obligated to stay with him, but we couldn’t dream of leaving. His stories about the historical planes were incredible and had far more detail than any of the plaques. Besides, we wanted to listen to him. We enjoyed it.

For the next twenty minutes, we had a personal tour around the museum. He turned off the microphone, encouraged us to touch the exhibits, told us all about the history. Every once in a while, he asked if we were done. We said only if the tour was. He kept going.

Finally, he checked his watch. It was fifteen minutes to the next tour, so he had to go. But instead of leave immediately, he lingered and talked about his life. He was a commander in the reserves for 20+ years. He was a retired history professor. His family lived nearby and visited often. He encouraged us to enjoy life and each other. Then, when he finally had to go, he shook my husband’s hand and gave me a grandfatherly hug, like he had known us for years. It was wonderful.

And it’s a moment we never would have experienced if without being willing to just listen.

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5 responses to “The Lost Art of Listening

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    Nowadays it’s the cell phones and social media distractions, but (and this has always been true) a lot of it is that some people hear someone else’s story as “Now I’ll have a chance to tell MY story!”

    • S.B. Roberts

      That’s very true. I never really thought about it before, but that does happen all the time. Is it bad that I’m now going to pay more attention to how often people do that? :)

  • C.B. Wentworth

    I would have stuck around! It’s amazing how people have such short attention spans for anything beyond themselves. Sounds like you had a really fun day! :-)

  • http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com

    You discovered the true art of communication. It also involves a heart ready to absorb and appreciate the other person’s story. When we think about it, listening is vital to many of the arts. Actors need to listen to another actor’s lines in order to react. Artists and musicians need to listen to their inner voices to create. We all need to listen to our families and friends and people we meet in order to truly communicate with them. Thank you for reminding us of this essential gift.

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