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Griffths on the distinction between hearing and listening

By Dave Griffiths

tct columnist

Greetings for the first time since last July. It’s been too long, but my business travel schedule (writing classes for the feds) ramped up, and I let certain obligations slide. So now I’m back. And thanks to those of you who’ve been asking about the column.

What got me going this time was blatant rudeness, which, like negativity, is an attitude that many of us find way too easy to adopt. Allow me to give you a couple instances, then I’ll link the whole thing to boring people.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was a steady fan of a certain sports talk show out of Portland. Two hosts and a crazy cast of callers display wide knowledge and the sort of irreverent humor that I’ve found lacking on other such shows around the country. Well, one Monday morning, someone called in with a theory about the Red Sox. I don’t recall the details, but I do remember that one of the hosts—never averse to a high-pitch, slam-dunk, ranting put-down of athletes and callers alike—took his sarcasm to an extreme. The caller had a reasonable point of view, but the host didn’t care about reason that morning and kept interrupting and talking over the guest. At one point, the caller said, “You’re acting like a two-year-old.”

Right about then, I said, “That’s enough.” My wife, who happened to be listening at the time, said a simple, “Thank you.” And somehow, fervent sports fan that I am, I’ve survived since then.

Next, I was on a plane ride, sitting in an aisle seat just behind two 40-something women in adjoining aisle seats of their own. Unfortunately, they knew each other as friends and co-workers, and they had a lot to talk about—so much, in fact, that there wasn’t a moment of silence for the entire three hours between Philadelphia and Dallas.

The dominant voice belonged to the lady on the left. It wasn’t loud, but somehow it had the timbre and tone and edge to carry for three or four rows in every direction. I know that because I saw passengers in front of me turn around and stare. In a couple instances, once they resumed sitting forward, they shook their heads back and forth in exaggerated attempts to show displeasure.

But if they noticed, the ladies simply didn’t care. The one on the left, who proclaimed before we’d climbed out of Philly that she was a store manager for a big chain, was self-absorbed to the point where I found myself wondering about her husband’s emotional balance. Yes, she did have a husband, plus a favorite aunt with Alzheimer’s, about which we heard every possible detail. The same went for her job, where she made it clear via one babbling, rambling story after another that she was a tough but fair boss.

Her partner across the aisle was clearly the second banana on an ego trip in which I’m certain the talker wanted the rest of us to admire her family spirit and managerial savvy. I know that because No. 2 barely got out a sentence or two before No. 1 jumped in to elaborate.

Have you ever noticed the distinction between hearing and listening? Those who “hear” nod along with the talker and wait for the tiniest opening to chime in, sometimes rudely. Those who “listen” actually respond to what is being said. One preens; the other shares.

That leads me to bores. For my writing students, I often cite research to the effect that adults learn best “by story.” That is, they get the teaching point when it’s elaborated via an anecdote, much like a parable or fable. To be effective, the story has to be interesting, with a kicker worth waiting for. It’s a matter of putting your audience first.

But the bores who numb us and have us breaking eye contact to let them know we’re not intrigued are the ones whose stories are self-centered because they’ve fooled themselves into thinking they are intriguing human beings. And with that sort of internal backing, why sell yourself short? Let it flow.

I’m going to stop here lest you think I’m saying too much, so I’m happy to quote the French philosopher Voltaire: “The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.”

 

Dave Griffiths is a free-lance writer and editor who teaches writing and media relations and presentation skills to businesses, government agencies and nonprofits all over the United States. He lives in Mechanic Falls and can be reached at 345-9835 or dave@davegriffithscommunications.com.

 

 

 

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