I’m an extravert: I gain energy from being around people, and normally that means talking. I love writing blog posts because it has a real audience, real “someones” that my words will reach. When I get stuck in a bog of conflicting research sources, I collar someone and explain my problem to them, as a way out. Or I write a pretend email to a Good Listener. When my ideas are at a tipping point, but not quite tipped, I cancel my evening 30 Rock episode on the couch with my husband and make him listen to me explain how I’m almost almost there and sometimes that will tip me over. I think out loud at meetings–that is, by talking–as though the process of putting things into sentences turns nothingness into plans.
I’m a talker. It’s how I learn. It’s how I generate ideas. It’s how I formulate and consolidate plans.
You know what, historically, I’m not super good at? Listening. I’m working on it.
I like to tell myself that I’m an “active listener”–I’m interrupting you to show how interested I am! I’m restating what you said so you’ll know I hear you! I’m grabbing the kernel of what you just said and moving it forward to the next idea, or the solution, or the resolution. I like to tell myself all those things, but really, it’s all just rationalization for my talking habit.
In my new grad chair role, my listening deficits must be addressed. I’m meeting with a lot of graduate students, to discuss the particularities of their projects and degree progress. I’m meeting with professors to talk about any and all issues related to our grad programs, and other things. I’m meeting with our departmental staff to learn how things work; I’m meeting with other grad chairs to find out what they do. This has required a tremendous amount not just of shutting up (which, honestly, I’m really not good at, I know) but also listening, really listening.
Shutting up is staying silent and letting other people have the floor. Brute force lip clamping can achieve this. But listening is something different, harder, more profound. Listening, I find, means being radically open to the possibility that what someone else is saying might just shift everything. These conversations are not a scene from a play, where once I hear my cue I know what I’m going to say next. These conversations should be radically interactive: that is to say, they ought to be engaged with as though they will produce unknown outcomes. Listening entails a tacit acknowledgment of a pretty fundamental kind of “I don’t know.”
Really listening, that is, is an act of humility and vulnerability, when in my heart of hearts I prefer to be invincible and always right–a benevolent dictator who has all the right ideas, already. When I’m really listening, it’s ontologically as well as practically terrifying: who will I be if I learn something new in the next 30 second? Who knows what might happen next? I might have to change what I think, change what I do. Admit that I didn’t know something and just learned it right now.
I had a meeting this week where I made a conscious effort to listen. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. I let the other person talk until she went silent on her own. I thought about what she said. And then I had to reframe what I thought I knew, and change my mind about something I was pretty confident about. And then it kept happening, with each conversational turn! Wow.
It’s easier to already know all the right answers, even if they’re just the “right answers,” for me at least. Easier to craft diatribes and pronouncements with pauses to allow for murmurs of approval and applause. Much harder to not know, to make mistakes, to ask for actual advice–and then to take it–rather than a rubber stamp on a course of action already decided on.
Listening. I’m going to keep practicing. It’s humbling and it’s difficult, but I’m really learning things. I think this might be good.