“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” (Winnie the Pooh / A.A. Milne)
To discuss: What roles to listening and patience play in your close relationships? How might you cultivate patience and learn to listen more deeply?
To do: Practice quieting the chatter in your own mind, limiting distractions, and deeply listening to each person you encounter today.
Source: Conversation Cards by the Fetzer Institute,
Found by my dad while he was sorting donations as a public library volunteer
This post is the second in a series on realizing the giftedness of one’s parents. You may also enjoy the first post, Dad, Supernova.
After my dad died, I tried a few times to get a hold of my college friend Megan, who now lives in Chicago. She knew my dad well and liked him a lot. I finally reached her with the news a couple days before the funeral; the next day, I got a follow-up call from her.
“I’m coming to the funeral. I just passed Jackson!” She drove four of the five hours from Chicago to Detroit before even telling me, because she didn’t want me to protest that she shouldn’t come all that way.
So after the funeral, Megan, Max, and I were sitting around talking at my parents’ house. Talking, that is, until they noticed that I had zoned out. And while you might forgive me for being distracted right after my dad’s funeral, Megan and Max knew that my tendency to get lost in my own thoughts predated the brain fog of sudden bereavement. Megan laughed as she told Max about how, whenever our group of friends played board games in the dorm, the others had to remind me that it was my turn so often that it became a running joke.
Max noted that in this respect, the apple didn’t fall very fall from the tree.
Usually, if Dad answered when I called my parents’ house, he would talk just a bit and then ask if I wanted to talk to Mom.
It made me wonder: was he offering to go get Mom when I called because he didn’t feel like talking? Or because he assumed that I didn’t want to talk to him? “You always tell your mom things on the phone,” he would say periodically. It was a neutral observation, perhaps implying that he knew he wasn’t very good at listening to his daughters, or that it was just a fact of life that girls talk to their moms more than their dads, and no one was to be blamed for it.
Admittedly, Mom is an excellent listener. I was always close to my mom growing up, perhaps in part because she let me go on and on at length and never made me feel like I was doing so. Meanwhile, it wasn’t that Dad didn’t care; it seemed more like he just didn’t know what to say after a certain point. So he would offer to go get Mom, and then Mom would fill him in on the conversation later.
Then, sometime in 2015, Dad updated his policy. “I’m going to try to call more,” he told me one day, cheerfully, “so I don’t always have to ask your mom how you’re doing.”
One of the problems common to that group we’ve dubbed gifted is that they are prone to deep and uncommon interests. And even when they are among others with similarly wired brains, those deep interests are still not likely to overlap. A group of such friends may include one person who wants to go on about Chinese classical architecture (and the travesty of modern Beijing, where much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution), another about various European royal families (let me tell you about this riveting biography I just read of Lady Jane Grey!), another about loop quantum gravity (and why string theory is a waste of time)—well, you can see how this wouldn’t wholly address the issue.
Dad tended to form or join groups around his fascinations. There was his founding of the Electro-Magnetic Research Society as a high school student; his fireworks company, StarWorks, when he was in his 20s and 30s; and his membership in the Detroit Stereographic Society (he called it “Photo 3D” after the listserv) and the Michigan Unix Group (known as “MUG”). Later on he went to yoga almost every day and joined a meditation group in Ann Arbor. He was (along with my sister and me) a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. And he loved science fiction; every time someone proposed watching a movie, he would suggest, “Forbidden Planet?” That’s a move from Dad’s childhood that he watched over and over in the theater; he struck up an immediate friendship with Max’s dad the first and only time they met and discovered that Max’s dad, who went on to be a NASA astrophysicist, had done the same thing.
But even though he stubbornly, jokingly, always suggested it, he knew no one else wanted to watch Forbidden Planet. (Except the one time I caved, because he was so persistent.)
So when Dad said he was going to make an effort to call more, I felt a bit guilty that it had come to that. I could just as easily have been the one to make an effort to call Dad.
But wait, I said to myself. I did do that, and Dad would still go get Mom. For some reason, it didn’t work.
But now Dad was on board with it. The first few phone calls gave hints as to the nature of the challenge: Dad didn’t necessarily feel prepared to talk about my things, and I wasn’t a great listener about Dad’s things, because I was used to Mom just indulging whatever I wanted to talk about.
And then there was Max’s role in all this. See, when I go on about my own esoteric interests, Maxwell, like my mom, always listens. He even recalls these things later. When I first realized he was doing this, I was bowled over—I, like my dad, had long ago gotten used to people’s lack of interest, in the same way that fish are used to water.
Max and my mom both offered the attention that intellectually overexcitable people dream of but almost never find. They are both intellectually overexcitable themselves; but somehow, they are better listeners.
Mind you, I try to reciprocate for Maxwell. I’d give myself a B- so far, based on an average of A-‘s when I’m trying hard, and C-‘s when I get so absorbed by the content of the conversation that I forget about the speaker. See, the thing is, sometimes I’ll be listening to someone, and precisely because of my genuine interest, I end up following a tangent inside my mind, because they said something interesting that sparked a mental leap.
And then I realize I’m not actively listening to them anymore.
And then (being the sort of student who gets upset with less than an A, and finding myself with another C), my internal response is, I’M SORRY! I REALLY CARE! IN FACT IT’S BECAUSE I CARE SO MUCH THAT I GOT DISTRACTED! Um, can you repeat what you said? BECAUSE I CARE!
I have had this conversation (though in a form that’s less raw and more properly socialized) a couple times with people who are friends in that, as the saying goes, they know me very well and like me anyway. One of them is Maxwell, who—upon hearing I was writing this blog post—said he thinks active listening is overrated because he likes the ideas I come up with when I get distracted. This is clearly one of many reasons Maxwell and I are sticking together.
But back to Dad. I knew he had so many interests he really, really enjoyed sharing with people. If they cared. Which they usually didn’t.
But now he was actively making phone calls! Phone calls in which he both tried to relate his interests in an engaging way, and (even more so!) tried to be interested in other people’s things! Though it took some practice for both of us, for my part, at least, I can describe my active listening process as thinking specifically of the node in the mental schema where my interest overlapped with something I knew about theirs. But to be honest, this is what all conversation is; what really matters is the sincere intention behind it to listen mindfully, because you realize how valuable your attention is to your listener, and how much you’ve been receiving it without always reciprocating.
And so I listened. When Dad was pumped about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence to the point that he found a used copy to bring me when he came to DC, I read it, marked thoughts in the margins, and then we went through it page by page sharing our respective marginalia.
Then there was the time I brought up how something he had shared many years earlier—the Franklin-Covey idea of “big rocks” and how you have to fit them into your bowl of priorities before little rocks and sand leave them no space—had come back to me and been useful. He said he had forgotten about that and thanked me for reminding him. The next time we talked, he told me he had written “Big Rocks” down on an index card that he keeps in his pocket so he can remember them and keep them in his focus.
Another time, around when Bernie Sanders’ campaign was taking off, I talked about my idea for a “Project Phoenix” for the Left. He remembered it later—this was in the first week of February 2016—and asked me how Project Phoenix was going.
This may all just sound like conversation to you, but to me, it was huge. Dad had decided to do something different: he was actually engaging in conversations and remembering details between calls and asking me about them. And I had decided I also wanted to do better. And so it was working.
I still beat myself up about failures to listen to him—times when, not that long ago, he looked disappointed but unsurprised that I didn’t care about the thing he was so excited to share. My one consolation is that, on the very last chance, I managed not to mess it up.
My last conversation ever with Dad was on his sixty-seventh birthday. He had just come from a MUG meeting, where they’d discussed high performance computing. He was really excited about it. I listened and asked questions.
The heart attack was about twelve hours after that. Later we found his Big Rocks index card on his dresser. I’m getting it matted and framed, and will hang it by my computer, where I work on putting my own big rocks into my bowl.
Images by Pixabay artists markito, ulleo, mohamed1982eg, epicioci, gemmity, and cheleparent0.
This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
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