Tag Archives: listening

Looking for Listeners

                                Photo: Moira Clunie

The smartphone has a special role in our drift towards inner-direction. By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called or texted or mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my post been sufficiently “liked?” 

In any hierarchy of communication deficits, the availability of receptive and interested listeners must be near the top.  Good listeners are in relatively short supply while eager talkers are a dime a dozen.   What the composer Igor Stravinsky lamented about pipe organs applies to the overly loquacious: they can be “monsters” that never seem to take a breath. The challenge is finding those souls whose lives are sufficiently centered in their lives to be open to experiencing all that another has to say.

We pay to hear others perform music or theater pieces, maybe stand-up comedy or an occasional TED Talk. As Neil Postman famously noted, if our culture fails in some ways, we are at least ‘the best-entertained society on earth.’  If not to hear what is on Aunt Bertha’s mind, we will still make time for the biggest spectacles our media giants can produce. By contrast, we rarely expect to be enchanted by the everyday thoughts of others.

This means that the verbal and digital traffic that clutters our lives is mostly outbound. Many of us are on lifelong quests to find others who might want to consider our thoughts. By contrast the incoming lanes that can reach into our consciousness are mostly empty, or sometimes closed for lack of use.

Few teachers would perhaps acknowledge it, but one of the joys of having students is that they are a captive audience. Even if they are not exactly in the thrall of a teacher’s words, students will humor their instructors enough to allow them to believe it.


The ‘me decade’ never ended.  It’s becoming the ‘me century.’ 


This problem of a shortage of truly open ears extends to nearly every realm of human contact. Nearly all of us who write books receive modest returns as royalties. Theater and even motion picture producers usually know the dread of a nearly empty house. I’ve been the organizer of public meetings and town halls where a sense of doom sets in when the invited presenters show up to see a room of mostly empty chairs.  Most of us are simply too insistent that we be the recipient of our own attention. Figure in hours for digital grazing, and we hardly have time left to give ourselves over to others.

The heavies that contribute to a problem are represented in the self-mocking phrase, “Well, enough about you.” They include over-indulgent parents, work culture that easily robs employees of a sense of agency, dismissive judgments couched in mental health categories, and commercial messages that insist that we should treat ourselves as if we are ‘Number One.’

I’d reserve a special role in the shift away from other direction and toward inner-direction for the smartphone.  (If you know this blog, you knew this was coming.)  By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called/texted/mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my facebook post been sufficiently “liked?”

So if others like us are broadcasters more than receivers, we must arm ourselves to go into the world ready to absorb the self-referential barrages. It’s one reason that more of us sense the need to rebound from an evening spent listening to overactive talkers with enough solitude to help us rediscover the joys of the larger universe.

The All Purpose Advocate

                           Speaker John Bercow

All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and the other smaller factions in the Mother of Parliaments.  The stunner is how well the Speaker has managed the chaos.  

Anyone spending time listening to the President and others in the current American stalemate might wonder what has happened to fluent advocacy.  The President’s impoverished lexicon leaves him ill-prepared to make coherent arguments for policies.  He clings to one comfortable idea that he understands: a wall. It has the virtue of being a thing rather than an idea. In his one-note campaign he seems to have missed the irony of arguing in favor of one of the crudest tools in any government’s arsenal: a symbol of political failure that even Ronald Reagan understood when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of Berlin’s concrete barrier. A wall was perhaps a more appropriate military weapon in the 14th Century than it is now.

Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.

Because I teach advocacy, my courses these days come with a caution to my students to aim higher than the rhetoric coming from the White House and other corners of Washington.  Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.  When “bye bye” is the President’s way of ending negotiations with other political leaders, we hear yet again a rhetoric of petulance that is more appropriate to a child than a leader of a great nation.

A far better model is on view almost daily in the form of the current Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons.  I’ve been on a busman’s holiday recently following the often dismal Brexit debate unfolding in London. The tense standoff involving elected members to the Mother of Parliaments has been managed by John Bercow, whose job it is to bring order to a body that is always rowdy. The 55-year old former Conservative, the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, has been a formidable and sometimes controversial Speaker, lecturing members on their behavior and keeping the House more or less on schedule.  He is also a marvel of fluency.

In the current climate of U.K. politics there are even more daily eruptions than usual in the compact chamber, mostly motivated by opposition to the Prime Minister’s plans for carrying out a divorce from the European Union. All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and other smaller factions in the body.  Yet, the stunner is how well Bercow has managed the chaos.

Bercow has created some additional fury from the Tories in power, who claim that he is playing favorites in the ways he has adjudicated various amendments and procedures. Even so, if I were asked to give a student an immersion experience in hearing eloquent advocacy, I’d give them at least several hours of material showing Bercow presiding over debates in the Commons. He listens with precision and grace. And his answers and explanations to doubting members show a number of attributes of effective advocacy.  He’s responsive, courteous, patient, forceful, and rarely at a loss in finding exactly the right words.  He also seems to know the names and biographies of most of the body’s 650 members.

Here’s a sample of Bercow in the thick of it.

Recently he declined a member’s “point of order” asking the Leader of the Opposition to apologize for allegedly muttering the phrase “stupid woman” made after comments from Theresa May. The rules of most deliberative bodies do not allow personal attacks on members.  But Bercow said that neither he nor his deputies heard the comment. His unpopular decision left him with the difficult task of making a case for not ruling on a possible verbal slight against May, even in the midst of the #MeToo era. If this is not Bercow’s finest hour, his efforts still illustrate how a master advocate articulates a position in the face of fierce resistance.

MPs call on Bercow to discipline Corbyn after ‘mouthing stupid woman’

Today marks only a hundred days to go before Britain finally pulls the trigger and exits the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in parliament. SCHEDULE: 0930GMT – Exiting the European Union Committee 1200GMT – Prime Minister’s Questions begins Read more…