I saw her walk past me. With a friend. They sat down opposite each other.
I chose not to notice. But out of the corner of my eye I could see her head bobbing and moving.
I glanced for a second. But she wasn’t talking.
But my intuition nudged me. There’s something more happening here.
I glanced again. And then I understood.
She’s listening. To everyone. To her friend in front of her. To the people across the aisle on the train. To the people passing through. She was awake and alive and alert to all occurring around her.
She alighted off the train. She and her friend walked in front of me. A crowd of us were taking the bus from Caulfield to Darling.
She sat near me. Or I sat near her.
She listened to her friend show her phone photos. She listened to the two children on her left. She laughed while they played peep-bo while sticking out their tongues! She listened as the girl next to me gave up her seat before I had even thought of it.
She was awake and alive and alert to all occurring around her.
And the joy she gave me was watching someone really listen.
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.
It was a long bus trip from the city to the suburbs. It was made worse by the conversation I couldn’t avoid.
Conversation (Photo credit: CharlieCE)
The two girls sitting in front of me were going through a laundry list of possessions. Each one seemed to be trying to out do the other. It reminded me of Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 saying that people only talked about things.
Even if they had moved to talking about others I would have been annoyed with that too! In Fahrenheit 451 people also talk about other people!
My bad mood that day aside, I thought later about that conversation when I was studying how adults learn. We first learn about things then other people and then ourselves. And we talk about things and other people and ourselves.
My point is we don’t learn from talking. Insight comes from listening to things, others, yourself and that world beyond. That put me in a better mood!