The Hidden Power of Listening
Shutting my mouth has never been easy. My-friends could use many adjectives to describe me, but I doubt that the word quiet would turn up on their lists. Indeed, I must have completely missed the memo-in junior high that said girls should be quiet in class to be attractive to boys. Sure, I had the matching socks and hair bows (it was the South, after all), but I was always ready to-yell out an answer with the best of the XY-chromosomed set.
As I grew older and fell in with writers and journalists, the charge was to get my words in like a gunslinger—to be the first with a bon mot and the quickest with the witty aside. Quiet was for the boring and the frail.
In fact, a typical conversation between me and my friends would give a transcriptionist the heaves. How could anyone tell who said what with so many interjections? But as I sat in a café with my friend on my first listen-up night, I let her unspool her story about her work and loves. Rather than trying to be funny or reactionary as she told me about a newly train-wrecked relationship, I focused on what she was saying and weighed the advice I could give her to be most helpful.
That I felt I was being a better friend was not a surprise. The shocker was how much my new behavior made me feel in control of my own problems. (Whatever others may think, my true friends know that my life is held together with safety pins, Scotch tape and the glue of humor. When I come to the table ready to spill the story of my latest upheaval, they see past my grin and my wisecracks.) Indeed, as I went to meet one of my other girlfriends, I had worked myself into a frenzy over a recent attachment, a man with whom things had become irreparable. But sitting there, listening rather than talking, seemed to give an eye to my storm. "He's a fool," I finally told her. And yours is a fool, too, I thought to myself, realizing that much of what I'd said to her should be repeated to me. And somehow, by the time I left the café, the thought of spilling labored tales of him seemed like wasted breath.
Quiet, Night Two
The more startling lessons came in the presence of casual acquaintances and strangers. For years, my New Year's resolution has been to be more careful about what I say. "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence," said first century philosopher Publilius Syrus, a truth that should be posted at many a cocktail hour and company party. How many times had I found a story so funny or warmly intimate in the moment but simply self-destructive by the next morning, if not the next moment?
The following evening, I stepped into a salon of New York writers and saw my friend Bruce. At our last gathering, I had regaled him with details of a new affair. By the time I had finished talking, half the table, which was packed with people whose names I couldn't recall, had overheard more about me than strangers ever should. But this time, I focused on Bruce, letting him opine about everything from the presidential race to the machinations of love.
"How are things going?" he asked.
I paused for a few seconds, reminding my tongue of its place. "All is well," I said. "There's nothing really to tell."
My terseness amazed even me. Who knew it could be done? Who knew I wouldn't feel boring or lame, but enigmatic and alluring? And my silences offered me not only protection but a sensation of power as well.
Next: The listening experiment continues