Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Zen of Brave Men Listening

Becoming a “good listener,” as people often describe me, is a lifestyle choice, a lifestyle that you, dear reader, can aspire to achieve, in various ways.

How? Maybe not like me specifically—my best friend Susan, from seeing me around my straight friends and her gay friends, has said I am a chameleon. In this I am like detective Garret, the brave ironic man in Glen Cook’s fantasy series. Garret reports that by listening while being semi-like the person he is interviewing he gathers more information. As for regular people, non-chameleons, they can surely be good listeners without being like Garret or I.

Another advantage Garret has, when it comes to listening, is he genuinely likes people, and he accepts them as they are. While he dislikes criminals and the rulers up on the hill, in the course of the series Garret dates a crime Lord’s daughter, a successful big capitalist’s daughter and a high mucky muck princess: He can look for the good and show his warmth towards a girl’s human side. Garret reminds me of the real world where the noted psychologist Carl Rogers documented in his On Becoming a Person the power of listening with positive regard. As a young man I underlined parts of Roger’s book.

“Good listener” implies there are “bad listeners,” which implies listening ability is on a scale, a spectrum. I try to be at the pretty end of the spectrum. And you?

If we can change our place on the spectrum, then that implies that listening “skills” are involved, meaning: I can “improve” my skills. And that is indeed the case—supposedly. Today social work students are taught listening skills, such as head nodding, never crossing their arms to look cross, and so forth. (There’s even an acronym to learn!) I won’t go down their laundry list of skills here. These skills were first noted, and picked out as something to be taught, by a man who worked with Carl Rogers, Richard Farson. In one of the best management books out there, Management of the Absurd, (with a forward by Michael Crichton) Farson confesses he wishes now he had never captured such skills.

In other words, there is a Zen to it. Instead of learning to listen from the outside in, by pasting on skills, why not learn from the inside out, by firing up sincere desire? A little sincerity goes a long way. Farson prefers desire to skills. Me too.

If today folks tell me I am a good listener then it is not from me learning a few skills, slowly over time, but from instantly learning something, one day in Montreal, as I was reading a page of the best seller Sex and the Single Girl by noted Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. In a nutshell: When you go out on a date, really listen hard… That’s it, that’s all Ms. Brown has to say—and that’s enough. It might sound simplistically easy to you, but there are reasons why other people just can’t do it.

More Zen: Instead of the focus of a meditating monk, imagine a contrast: It’s hard to listen if you are simultaneously trying to think about other things, being distracted. And please, don’t be distracted by thinking about what you are going to say: Wait until the other guy stops his flow of words, then think, in the space after the full stop. Otherwise, besides not listening your best, you may seem rushed and downright undignified. Gentlemen don’t rush in public.  

Again the Zen: For the ears to be open the mind must be open. When Captain Kirk, as brave as detective Garret, meets new people from new civilizations, he is Zen-relaxed, having optimal tension. It’s hard to hear, hard for a radio transmission to come in strong and clear, when you have your “deflector screens up” from stubbornness, ideology, or a mind of fear. This month some born-in-America Muslims gave me no cheer: Firmly believing that “Islam means peace,” they were unwilling to listen to a former Member of Parliament, raised-in-a-Muslim-district, who thought otherwise. In fact, they dis-invited her from coming to their campus—Brandeis University in Waltham/Boston Massachusetts—where she was going to pick up an honorary degree. And speak. Regarding the dis-inviting of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, presumably to shelter students from discomforting views, Canadian columnist Rex Murphy asked, “Is this a university or a day care?”

Of course a mind can be consciously closed, a person can deliberately describe himself as a “stubborn old coot” or “a true Marxist” or “right” thinking. Well, so much for “good” listening.

As it happens, a mind can be unconsciously closed too. My favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, is a partner in a Silicon Valley firm that incubates groups of entrepreneurs building “startup” companies. Most startups fail. For advising the successful groups, a few “words to the wise” are sufficient.

But it’s different advising the unsuccessful groups, the groups who seem to have made their decision in advance. Paul and his partners write of “a sort of wall,” of “glazed eyes,” as if everything they hear is going through a filter when “(the bad groups) desperately tries to munge whatever I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process…” Better to have a mind unclosed, like an eager university student does, except at Brandeis, a student who looks at everything with alert fresh eyes: a good listener.

Good students remind me that “good” hearing is like the difference between being a mere reader and a “good” reader in the business world. As Kate White puts it in I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This (p. 192) “The other reason people don’t use knowledge is that they don’t program their minds to really consider it. They let their eyes skim over what might be of advantage without gaining any traction. You have to set your brain on “inquiry” and make it a habit to seek and question.”

Ability to listen, then, is partly a Zen-matter of “setting your intention” to be open to people. Too bad the world in general isn’t as open as a college campus. For me, by being a chameleon I become less judgmental and less frustrated whenever (hypothetically) I spend a half hour having tea and cookies in a dysfunctional household. Meanwhile, as our War on Terror runs like a background process in our lives, I wonder: Has even one cross-border (global reach) terrorist ever come from a functional family?

(Note: I have read that both Hitler and Mussolini came from dysfunctional families, and I guess Tojo did too)

What I never want to be is harsh to my wife and children… or self willed or uptight or intolerant. Surely such people, known to everyone around them as being ungracious, have a vested interest in being poor listeners in all areas of their life. My advice: Don’t be that guy. If some religious person tells you, in words or by actions, that you can’t be moral, upright and do good without being impolite, intolerant and downright abusive… then refer him to brave men like Abraham Lincoln, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi: They all tried to do some good while being polite and moral people; all were folks I would want for my neighbors, all were good listeners. Not like certain folks in Iran.

(Lincoln’s my favorite 19th century president—Whitehouse records show he spent many man-hours listening to visitors; complete strangers would line up to talk to him)

As for abuse, it seems to me a well-meaning tyrant, in his house here or over in Iran, might have trouble grasping that he is abusive. My way to check my behavior is this: Seldom is there a middle ground, so if it’s not nurturing then it’s abusive… If I cannot bear to listen to those who would disagree with me, if I must be impolitely silencing them, be hurting their feelings, even scaring them, then that is abusive, and I am in the wrong… It must be hard for students of certain backgrounds to go away to college and end up evaluating their harsh parents. I’m sure orthodox “listening-challenged” parents prefer their children to attend local schools, preferably orthodox ones. Then there’s less chance of the kids coming home at Christmas with fresh ideas.

As I write this, our drone strikes are in the news, our war on terror continues. One of my hopes for peace is our university students. I don’t mind my tax dollars supplementing their tuition fees: Our students build our future—including the students learning liberal arts. One day, when Muslim students at Brandeis can listen to Muslim social work students offering them advice on being “functional” then I will know the long walk to peace has passed a milestone.

Yes, I’m a good listener, but not from measurable skills, you don’t need special training. To paraphrase Alberta-born singer KD Lang, “Clear your mind and the rest will follow.”

Sean Crawford
A homely middle-aged man,
Who’ll be glad when this war is over,
And I don’t have to carry my shoes to fly in white socks wearing a dancer’s black unitard

~For a chart of Lincoln’s visiting hours throughout his presidency, see a book I really enjoyed, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times
By the way, being as I’m a Lincoln fan, I memorized his Gettysburg Address as an adult. (Not for school) Like learning a poem, it’s nice to have in my head, to share with Canadians when, say, we’re out in the mountains.

~Speaking of intolerance, I’ve read a few first-person accounts of life in Iran, but never one where the writer was a friend of a mullah. (Priest) Have you?

~Here’s a link to Paul Graham’s essay, A Word to the Resourceful (January 2012)

~I heard Rex Murphy’s column on CBC radio. I found a printed version. (April 11, 2014)

~Amusing: Some people are such poor listeners that John Prine sings a song for them; “My Linda’s gone to Mars/ Well I wish she wouldn’t leave me here alone” … My father traveled too, for a time, until one day my mother hit him in the wallet—she made him fork out for a hearing test!

~I remember a young KD Lang singing at the student union building wearing a long dress and cut off cowboy boots. Here’s a link to her in blue singing a Leonard Cohen song, Halleluiah. You might prefer a clip of her in white, singing with more individuality at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which apparently NBC cut out of their US broadcast.

~My afterthoughts regarding Brandeis U will be held back, maybe to append to the every-25-posts upcoming “taking stock” post, later in this month of May.

1 comment:

  1. Sean, Thanks for stopping by my blog. Sorry I wasn't there, but I rarely am. I spend my time on Facebook. In fact that was really where the action took place for my contest for a free copy of my latest book, Silver Totem of Shame. Sorry it's over now. Snow is all gone. Looking forward to meeting you at WWC. R.J. Harlick