The Hidden Power of Listening
The Third Night
The next evening, I attended a reception to honor the outgoing president of my alma mater. The event was held in a private club resplendent with rococo ceilings, expensive Indian rugs and antique furniture. As I moved to leave, I bumped into a woman I knew slightly. We had pledged the same sorority in college, but she had graduated before I joined. All I had heard about her was that she was fierce—icy wit, exacting demeanor, flawless beauty. In short, she was someone who scared me. Nearly a decade later, at first glance, little seemed to have changed, with her plummy vowels and ebony skin as inky and smooth as the black pashmina scarf that was around her shoulders.
I somehow found myself with her in an exquisite antechamber. As I listened, settled into an oak-armed chair, certain realizations crystallized. I not only heard more in her words more clearly, as if she were speaking in Dolby sound, but I also saw her in sharper, more detailed lines. How different this would be under normal circumstances, I thought. For so long, I had equated talking with having a presence—forcing myself to speak up in meetings, trying to coax a laugh out of a new acquaintance—that I would have barely heard what she was saying. Instead, I would have been looking for places to make my arguments, cut off her sentences to start mine and slice in with my jokes, making sure I had made an impression.
Again, listening made me feel like an expert, a master strategist. But that description must come with a caveat. I didn't exert power over my companion or wrongly take something from her. If anything, I felt masterful because I was able to give more to her and to myself. Whereas my words and demeanor might have normally reflected my anxiety about her—an anxiety borne not of knowing her but of my preconceptions of her—I was now able to draw her out with my questions and silences. I allowed myself to let her in. And so she shared her worries and insecurities—she was in the wrong job and she questioned whether she'd ever find true love or have to settle, the way she saw many a peer in her thirties settling, with someone more a stranger than a soul mate. By the time we parted on a drizzle-dampened street, she had moved into the category of likely friend.
What Jackie Knew
The effects of listening even spilled over into my time alone. As I walked through my neighborhood to a café, I took in my surroundings: A lady getting her toddler into his coat. Teen girls drinking pop and smoking as boys threw a football outside their high school. The buzz of the meat slicer as I walked past the butcher. The way the air vibrated as the street crew jackhammered the ground four blocks up.
New York City has a way of making you retreat into your head, the better to avoid the crazies. But not detaching from the world around me meant that my mind didn't bob along, just replaying my day. Rather, my thoughts were immediate and present, a vacation into the worlds of others. By the time I reached the café, I wasn't like a puppy with a chew toy, agitating myself by gnawing some trivial thing-to death. Instead, I felt in the moment, at rest.
I'm not sure how possible it is to undo one's essential nature. I like my zingers, my giggling, my gossip. But in the space of a weekend, I felt a little older, if only because I felt a little wiser. I certainly won't look askance at the quiet ones anymore. Well, that's not true. I'm sure I'll catch myself wondering, Are they just shy wallflowers? Or are they smart cookies who've figured out what Jackie knew so well: Silence isn't golden. It's power.
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