As a fan of Brainpickings, I was drawn to a wonderful article called How to Listen Between the Lines in which Maria Popova interweaves the art of listening with a review of Anna Deavere Smith’s book also called Talk to Me : Listening Between the Lines.
There was one line that leaped out of that web page at me. It was “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.” “You know,“I thought to myself, “that occasionally happens to me.” But before I indulge myself in an exultant surge of self-congratulation let me share that it doesn’t happen often enough !
Yes I can start and sustain a conversation. I do follow my mother’s advice to me as a teenager. I allow the person to talk about themselves. As I’m naturally curious I ask questions (which really helps me professionally when I’m training or interviewing subject matter experts). The sequence of questions follows the active listening path of open questions, specific questions, reflected statements or closed questions. If I have shared experiences or can step into their shoes momentarily, the conversation can take a more personal course. I’ve learnt little by little that I don’t have to offer my advice or wisdom. I’ve learnt to be even more silent and learn from them. Occasionally I become a facilitative problem solver encouraging and occasionally suggesting solutions (which really helped when I was a desktop support person). But I still have more to learn. And the key is silence.
For if I wait for that silent moment something happens. What happens resonates with Deavere Smith’s words, “We can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them.” From reading her book, I realised that I’ve had it happen to me. It happens when the subject touches strongly upon the heart of that person. And in that moment there is a momentary revelation of that person. The real person. For me that revelation is their real story. Which is what Deavere Smith seeks as well as myself.
In time I downloaded the book and gradually worked my way through it. It is an oral history written in diary form which moves backwards and forwards from the early 50s and 60s when Deavere Smith encountered the discrimination rife in America at that time to through the 70s and 80s culminating in the Clinton scandals of the late 90s. There is much wisdom in this book. I’ve only scratched the surface.