Listening well is good. But it’s not enough.
During my junior year of college, one of my apartment-mates and I decided we would each write a letter to the other. Zealous as we were for personal development and spiritual formation, our goal was to point out places in each other’s lives where we saw room for growth. We knew each other well, and so we knew each other’s blind spots -- and thus, how to pack a punch (Warning: this isn’t something to try at home!). I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I opened my friend’s letter to me and read, “I think you could work on becoming a better listener.” The implicit subtext hurt like a well-aimed rap on the sternum: Right now, you’re not a very good one.
Though it probably wasn’t wise for my roommate and I to pinpoint each other’s flaws in such a blunt fashion, receiving that letter from him caused me to think carefully about how I might listen better.
When I was growing up, my mom told me to imagine conversations as if they were a tennis match (My mom is one of those people who will talk to a complete stranger at the grocery store and hear that stranger’s entire life story). Someone serves with an observation or a comment, and you hit the ball back with complementary remark, rather than catching the conversational ball and holding onto it. “Don’t dominate a conversation,” she always said. “It’s a way of loving people to listen and respect what they’re saying.”
Charles Derber’s little book “ The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life,” coined the phrase “conversational narcissism.” Derber distinguishes between what he calls “support responses” and “shift responses” in conversation. If your friend says, “I’m going to walk the dog in the park today,” you could reply, “Hope the rain holds off!” That would keep the focus on your friend’s statement (a support response). Or you could reply, “I went to the park yesterday and saw the senior girls playing soccer” -- a rejoinder that transfers attention from your friend’s comment to your own interests (a shift response). “Conversational narcissism involves preferential use of the shift-response and underutilization of the support response,” says Derber.
Since receiving my roommate’s letter, I’ve spent the last several years more aware of when I’m using one or the other of the responses Derber names. But I’ve also found that avoiding “shift-responses” isn’t the same as acquiring the skill of listening. Still less is it equivalent to learning how to love.
Recently I sat down to lunch with a friend. We lingered over our food, staying well into the afternoon at the restaurant. At the end of our conversation, my friend said, “You’re very good at asking questions, drawing people out” (Inwardly I congratulated myself: Way to be a listener, Wes!). “But,” my friend continued, half-jokingly, “I feel like I haven’t heard anything today about how you’re doing!” Strangely, my friend seemed to be saying, I was over-utilizing support responses -- always hitting the ball back across the net but never serving, rarely giving the conversational ball my own special spin. That kind of tactic, I realized suddenly, can hijack genuine dialogue just as much as an over-reliance on shift-responses. Paradoxically, listening can be a way to guard myself from the costly risk of self-disclosure. Supporting another’s comments in conversation, I could avoid the danger of truly welcoming another into my life.
After focusing for so long on listening and keeping the attention on the other person in conversation, I am now trying to remind myself of the hospitality of talking about myself. Self-disclosure can provide shelter for others. When I not only inquire about others’ thoughts and feelings but also -- with vulnerability, not knowing what might result -- unveil the “real me,” and speak honestly about who I am, what I think, what reflections and feelings I have in response to another’s self-disclosure, that too can be a way of loving, of assuring people they’re not alone.
I’m still learning what it means to listen well. But more importantly, I’m still learning what it means to love.
Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K.