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Aging for Amateurs: Listening: That rare and extraordinary and unforgettable thing

Dreamstime old friends sitting by lake conversation

If you can think of a time when somebody really listened to you, then you are well aware of the difference between merely hearing and the refined skill of listening. Dreamstime/Provided

Back when I was teaching, I used to get irritated at how medical students mumbled all the time in seminars and I would prod them to speak up. Then I had my hearing tested, bought hearing aids and the students stopped mumbling.

Listening begins with hearing — and older adults need to recognize that our hearing often nosedives with our advancing years, and it’s usually possible to do something about it. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that good hearing equals good listening.

Social encounters are hugely important to the mental health and happiness of older adults. Research enforces what we already knew: We need company, conversation, intimacy, laughter. It follows that the quality of listening is a matter we need to pay close attention to. Can you think of a time when somebody really listened to you? When you felt you were being heard and understood deeply due to the listener’s unusual ability to tune in to what you were trying to say? If you can, then you are well aware of the difference between merely hearing and the refined skill of listening.

In his brief essay called “His Listening,” Brian Doyle described what he appreciated most and loved in his father. His remembrance, found in "One Long River of Song," begins with this one amazing sentence:

“Among the many things that my father was very good at was this: when you said something to him, anything at all, anything in the range from surpassingly subtle to stunningly stupid, he would listen carefully and attentively and silently, without interrupting, without waiting with increasing impatience for you to finish so he could correct or top or razz you, and he would even wait a few beats after you finished your remarks, on the off chance that you had something else you wanted to add, and then he would ponder what you had said, and then, without fail, he would say something encouraging first, before he got around to commenting on what it was you said with such breath-taking subtlety or stupidity.”

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Doyle’s entire lyrical essay is worth reading as a primer on the art of listening. Doyle was writing a love letter to his father, not trying to tell you or me how to listen better — but he did. Since you may not have it at hand, let me pick a few nuggets out of the lode. Here are some takeaways:

  • First, learn to listen without the lifted eyebrow of judgment. Listen openheartedly to hear what the other is saying (and what she’s not saying), to understand what she wants to say. The point is not whether I agree or not or if I think she needs putting straight. Good listening is about tuning in to the speaker without the judgmental filter of my own opinion. “In so many people the answering, the opinionating, the jockeying, the topping, the shouting of self ... is the prime work in conversation, but this was not so for my dad.”
  • Learn to shut up. I love it when Doyle says his father always waited a beat after his son finished talking. We all know those conversations where another person jumps in just a beat before one has finished her sentence. Or when the other just waits for a slight pause or a breath to slip in with the next remark — not listening at all but thinking the whole time what he is going to say next. Positive listening requires negative space — pauses, moments of silence. Even just a beat.
  • Learn to feel the timing, the rhythm, the gait of a conversation. Maybe this is where the “art” comes in: A good conversation is like music, it has a beat. “There was a pace and a rhythm to his listening, such that the listening was far more important than anything else.” That means listening so as to feel and follow the flow. Be careful not to interrupt with distracting questions, even for clarification, because the stream will eventually run clear.
  • Learn to encourage the talker by giving limited, non-interrupting boosts that say she’s being heard. Little boosts that are careful not to change the subject, because that usually means changing the subject to me by interjecting an anecdote, giving a piece of advice, being reminded of something that happened to me. Just the occasional “oh yeah” or “say more about that” works.
  • Learn to listen to yourself. Tune in especially to what you’re feeling. Ask: What is making me impatient? What arouses my envy, or sadness, or anger, or makes me defensive? Listening to your own feelings not only helps you know yourself better, it can also be an indicator of subtle feelings that you are picking up from the talker. You are listening to that person on another level.
  • Learn to stick to the other’s point or theme long enough to feel it’s “completed” — exhausted, but at a natural full stop. Wait a beat. Hearing a person out allows you then to carry the talker’s idea or story one step forward. Then you can say something affirming about what she has said, clarify it, build on it, challenge it, and take it somewhere rather than nowhere. I think of the beautiful image Marilyn Nelson creates in her poem “Generous Listening.” It goes “Conversation can be a contest / or a game of catch with invisible balloons.”

But Doyle’s father knew that carrying the dialogue forward does not mean that you are expected to solve their problem, if a problem is what’s come up. Nine times out of 10 the person is not wanting to be fixed but to be heard, understood, accompanied. Women seem to get this better than men. Moving the conversation forward is more like adding the next ingredient to the soup, some salt or other seasoning, to make the communication a more robust mixture. As Doyle said of his father, “That he would often then add something wise and piercing is true, but that is not what I want to leave you with; I want to celebrate his listening, for it is now nearly gone from this world, and it was a rare and extraordinary and unforgettable thing.”

Sometimes I wonder if being hard of hearing back in the day didn’t force me to listen more carefully just because I had to. On the other hand, with hearing aids now, I’m more free to learn, practice and refine listening as an art, to appreciate it and strive to get better at it, because I believe too that listening is a rare and extraordinary and unforgettable thing.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at agingforamateurs@gmail.com.