Last week I met a friend in New York City for a day of walking and talking in the Big Apple. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a decade and so our day was full of lively conversation as we took in the sights of the city on an unusually warm and sunny February day. Meeting up with our best, long-time friends never ceases to provoke that feeling of delight inside of us… that feeling that we can jump right into a back and forth as if no time had passed at all, right? The following morning I missed my bus back to New Jersey and had two hours to kill while I waited for the next bus. The rain and rawness had returned and so I ducked into the Starbucks across from Port Authority for some people watching… and some people listening.
I know we’ve all done lots of people watching (one of my favorite things to do, actually) but have you ever done people listening? It is a long-known trick of creative writers to keep a journal handy and jot down those snippets of passing conversation between people because they can make great story and poetry starters and, plus, sometimes it’s just downright amazing what pieces of human interaction the Universe decides to deliver to our ears. My time in Starbucks was great because it was the morning coffee rush before everyone trotted off to their work day. Three of the most jovial young people I’ve ever seen slinging lattes were behind the counter–two women, one man, all three in their early 20s–and they kept the friendly chatter going between the front and the back of the house with a humorous and playful manner, the young man intermittently breaking out into a cappella that ranged from 80s pop to today’s hits to gospel, and the two pretty girls flirting and teasing along. The regulars were called by name, their brews made without the need for questions of size or sweetness and the line, which hummed with its own layered conversations, moved as quickly as any Starbucks line I’ve ever seen. Next to me, a homeless man in pirate-inspired outfit finished an Americana Grande as he spoke in a language I could not identify to a man with a briefcase who began an intricate drawing on a napkin after his pirate friend left to smoke a butt found on the ground outside the doorway. Only in New York.
So, then on Saturday, I ran with a good friend who travels a lot in the Mid-Atlantic for business. During our seven miles he reported, rather coincidentally, on some interesting conversations he’d eavesdropped on during a recent morning at a diner. During his breakfast, the booth across from his was occupied by two separate couples, each with a riveting, if mundane, exchange never meant for others to hear. We talked about why listening-in is so interesting and about our mutual feeling that people who really enjoy eavesdropping do so, in part, because we love to try to imagine the lives of the people we spy on, where they come from, why they are together and where they are headed. We naturally attempt to fill in the blanks and invent backgrounds and personalities that could be, perhaps, more interesting than the reality.
But, of course, being an avid eavesdropper doesn’t always mean we are good listeners. In a recent post at The Daily Good, writer and teacher Ricky Knue describes her modified use of Rosa Say’s D5M (the “Daily 5 Minutes”) to encourage her teenaged students to be better listeners. With an exercise that she admits often makes them uncomfortable, Knue requires that each day her students partner off with someone new and take turns talking to the other person about something of meaning for four straight minutes. A one-minute recap from the listener follows before the partners switch roles. The result of this practice, as reported by Knue, are really qualities that we want for all our children to have and, as an educator, I believe that its benefits could far outweigh the loss of ten minutes of otherwise “instructional time”:
As a result, not only do these students feel more at ease when presenting a final project, they also acknowledge each other outside the class room with eye contact and a smile. This is huge in a large, diverse high school. Students also come to learn that they don’t need to solve every problem they hear about; they just need to be fully present and inviting. We don’t have to blurt whatever comes to mind, nor tell our own story. We begin to empathize with others when they trust us and share their joys and sorrows, dreams and ideas, smiles and quiet times. We begin to understand that listening is a great way to learn about and experience all life, and experience the joy of connection.
In Africa, there is a belief that because we have two ears and only one mouth, we should listen twice as much as we speak and there listening is the guiding principle, indeed, a life skill, that respects and honors the storytelling tradition that is so much a part of the country’s culture. Westerners tend to be much more egocentric, much more interested in telling our story and getting our fifteen minutes of fame. But, we can learn to listen… it just takes practice. Imagine what we will hear if we do.
TRY THIS WEEK: Resist the urge to make someone else’s story connect to you and just listen.