Your Most Enchanted Listener
Seven decades ago Dale Carnegie offered his classic advice: When talking with others, it is much easier to create good human relations and make friends by being interested in them rather than trying to make them interested in you. Over the years, I have found this advice to be true for nearly every situation.
As I was traveling this summer, I was thinking about and observing conversation patterns of friends, professional associates, and former classmates attending a reunion. Here's what I observed: Many of the dozens of people I talked with seemed eager to tell their own personal stories, but they were much less interested in others' stories. It was as if they had a “talk-hunger” and needed a listener, and when they found one, they talked on and on.
The late Professor Wendell Johnson entitled one of his books “Your Most Enchanted Listener,” by which he meant that many people love to hear themselves talk, that they themselves become “enchanted” when they get to tell their own stories and share their opinions.
At first, such talking appears to be merely self-centered. However, I think that sometimes these talkathons result simply from habit and a lack of mindfulness. For example, one evening in July I was having dinner with a charming and loquacious friend, a highly creative and entertaining professional speaker. As he talked on, skipping from topic to topic, I broke in during a pause to say “I've got some ideas I'd like to explore with you . . .” Changing the focus of the conversation from him to me was not difficult, no more than simply asking for it. I was saying “OK, now I'd like a turn.”
In other situations, getting one's turn to talk can be more difficult. As is sometimes the case with professionals who are used to talking, telling, and giving advice for a living. Some of these become what marketing consultant Robert Middleton calls “brilliant idiots,” people who have deep expertise in only one domain but generalize their authority to all domains. They have opinions about nearly everything and insist on sharing them. I have known some professors, lawyers, speakers, consultants, ministers and medical doctors who succumbed to this occupational hazard. They had become so accustomed to having their authority respected – that's what they were paid for – they found it hard to admit to not knowing.
Still others seem impatient and judgmental and, in the words of St. Paul , “do not suffer fools gladly.” They want me to “get to the point,” or express myself in a way they'd prefer. (I once had an impatient boss who had the habit of finishing others' sentences. After a number of these awkward encounters, I avoided conversing with him unless I absolutely had to.) Such expressions of impatience or disdain remove safety from the interchange. We begin to monitor our words to avoid the stings of judgement. Sometimes very smart people manifest this impatient attitude and have hardly any curiosity about others' ideas. In business and industry, this is known as the NIH syndrome (Not Invented Here): “If we didn't think up the idea, it can't be good.” However, if these smart folks can't admit to not knowing everything, they can't allow themselves to be curious about others' different ideas. Captured in their own consensus trance, they can not heed the child who shouts “the emperor is not wearing any clothes.” Such was the case with the U.S. auto industry that lost much market share to the Japanese auto makers because they “knew it all” and didn't listen to what outside consultants were saying. American buyers wanted smaller, higher quality cars, but it took decades and great financial pain before Detroit got the message. For better human relations and for expanded understanding, it's wise to bring a curious mind and lots of patience to our conversations. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,”
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.”