I’ve always been a little bit of a chatterbox. In the seventh grade, my music teacher threatened to ban me from the middle school concert because I couldn’t stop talking to my BFF during choral practice. Once, during my teenage years, a homeless man in New York’s Penn Station looked up from his spot on the terminal floor to tell me and my sister (another chatterbox) to shut up because our animated conversation was interrupting his nap. And early on in my career, as I played back a recording of me interviewing someone for a magazine, I realized that I was doing almost as much talking as my subject.
Through the years, I’ve learned to cut back on the chatter and make a conscious effort not to interrupt when someone else is talking. But sometimes, especially when I’m excited about the subject at hand, I still find it challenging to shut up for an extended period of time.
Sure, the gift of gab can work to your advantage in social situations like parties and job interviews. But besides getting you kicked out of choral concerts, it does have its drawbacks. The most important of which is that while you are talking, there’s one extremely important thing you cannot do very well.
You can’t listen.
The older I get, the more I realize how crucial it is to be able to listen. And I’m not talking about that half-assed “yeah, yeah, I hear you” look you give people when you’re pretending to listen but are actually preoccupied with your thoughts. I’m talking about really, truly listening to someone. I’m talking (there goes the talking again) about being in the moment, fully engaged in what another human being has to say. Without thinking about your to-do list, or about where you have to be in a half-hour. And without worrying about the next thing you need to say.
“The practice of listening is one of the most mysterious, luminous and challenging art forms on earth,” writes Mark Nepo in his beautiful book Seven Thousand Ways To Listen: Staying Close To What Is Sacred. “The task is to slow down enough and be present enough to enter each moment that calls…Are you letting fresh experience enter and combine, or are you obsessed with sorting and analyzing what comes your way? Are you able to listen and receive, or are you observing and manipulating? We all do both.”
As a journalist, I’ve found that shutting up and listening is the only way to get a good story. Yes, starting an interview with some friendly banter can help put my subject at ease. But I can’t ask those “in the moment” follow-up questions—the ones that often yield the juiciest quotes—if I’m focused on checking items off a prepared list. And I certainly won’t pick up on the person’s mood if I’m not quietly observing those gestures and tones that reveal a lot about someone’s personality.
But what about those deadly silences that might erupt if I lose track of my agenda or don’t formulate a response quickly enough? It’s a normal impulse to fill those awkward moments with chatter, but then nothing unexpected has time to develop within them. The person doing the talking has no room to reflect or reveal something deeper. Some of the best quotes have come from my sources after a long, borderline-awkward pause. So I remind myself it’s OK to let them happen.
This concept also rings true with my interactions with my kids. My daughter started conversing at 6 months, probably because I talked to her nonstop. But whenever I took a break from telling her to “look at the doggy” or “see those pretty flowers on the tree,” that’s when I got to enjoy her babbling and cooing and smiling at me. I’d given her time to absorb what I’d said, then look around and formulate her own reactions. Again, a lot of great stuff can happen during those pauses.
The older I get, the more I understand the virtue of restraint. We go through life striving to be more outgoing, more revealing—especially in this age of social media. But sometimes it makes more sense, and allows us to let more in, to go slowly.
We all want our lives, our relationships, our communication with people to be meaningful. Sometimes we want it all to be extraordinary. We want the most important people in our lives to understand that we understand them. That we hear them.
A few years back I took voice lessons with a great teacher who taught me that yes, sometimes you need to hold a note for effect, but other times you should just release it. Now, as you can imagine, I am inclined to sing the hell out of something. To belt it out. But there’s a time and place for lingering, and sometimes holding back is the way to go.
For many of us, restraint is difficult. (But there’s so much to express! So much to let out!) But Nepo explains that listening itself is the ultimate form of connection. “We speak deeply by listening with heart to the Source, no matter who or what conveys it,” and by translating that presence not just into any old speech, but into meaningful speech. So that when something finally comes out of your mouth, it’s more than fluff.
I just love that. Because we all want our lives, our relationships, our communication with people to be meaningful. Sometimes we want it all to be extraordinary, in no way superficial or ho-hum. We want the most important people in our lives to understand that we understand them. That we hear them.
Nepo wrote this book after he learned that he was losing his hearing. They say we don’t realize what we have until it’s slipping away, so maybe he was only able to comprehend the gift of listening as his ears began to fail him. Luckily, he grasped the beauty and complexity of this ability—including the fact that listening involves much more than hearing. It requires you to open your heart and mind as much as your ears.
Why bother? “Because listening stitches the world together,” Nepo writes. “Listening is the doorway to everything that matters…And none of what matters reveals itself unless we stop to listen…This is the work of being human, from which no one is exempt.”