The Importance of Listening…

Observations and thoughts about the world we live in…

I’ve been working on a new book which I hope to release sometime in early 2019 – although that timeline may slip a bit given the other pressing demands of life. It seems that the many projects, making sure that Toto – the wonder dog and constant companion – goes for a walk every day when I’m at home as well as watching to make sure that the tides continue to go up and down ten feet at least twice a day at our home in Kittery, Maine :-) among the many other requirements of daily living.  These diversions sometimes pull me away from the petitions of my editor to cut out the wordy segments, reduce the number of metaphors and synthesize my thoughts more effectively so that readers will actually learn something about the lessons of leadership on persistence derived through focus, tenacity, failure, learning, understanding and reflecting – but emanating from the power of listening.  

The following thoughts are an adaptation from one of the chapters, “On Listening”.  As we step away from the travails and torment of our current political dialogue and offer tribute to our veterans, it seemed like a good time to step back and consider the need for listening to one another.  In reading the above bipartisan quotes, I’m particularly drawn to the notion that in honoring our veterans we are honoring the principles upon which our nation has been sustained.  It is through our diversity of cultural background, our diversity of ideas, our diversity of industry and our diversity of perspective that we have been allowed  and encouraged to hold diverse viewpoints across the whole of society.  But, all of this diversity cannot – will not – be sustained if we don’t listen.  So, I offer the following thoughts on

Learning the Art of Listening.

The Persistent Leader must acquire one characteristic above all others and that is the art of listening.  It is perhaps the most difficult but the most treasured of art forms for any leader.  In fact, it is the one area where I continue to diligently focus ongoing effort toward refining my skills in hopes of doing better over time. I must say that the recent debates, discussions and dialogues have challenged me in this regard.  Some of the discussions have been heated.  Others have been abruptly terminated because of the heat.  Some have even had the door closed on them before the discussion began.  And, still others have resulted in both sides simply shaking their heads and wondering – what the hell is he or she thinking?  The most productive; however, have been those where both sides persevered and listened carefully to the other to gain an understanding, to discover a core nugget of truth, to obtain an appreciation of the other’s ideas.  When we support such an approach in our dialogues, debates and discussions and don’t cut off our communications from one another – that’s when we have learned the art of listening. 

Now, please note that I am a student on the art of listening – not an expert.  I view listening as a continuing education skill.  I first learned the art of listening from a college friend’s father.  Her name was Sally and her Dad was Butch.  I met Sally through my best friend in college who eventually became her spouse.  She grew up on a farm not far from our university town so we would frequently “…go out to the farm” as a retreat from the rigors of university learning for a bit of reality learning.  When we arrived – often in a caravan of cars – we were always greeted by Butch (her Dad) and Ellen Ann (her Mom) with open arms.  It’s as if we had become part of the extended family which in many respects we were.  

When we arrived at the farm, we often sat around the kitchen table simply talking about university life and the latest events that seemingly swirled around us.  It was the early 1970’s and there was always a swirling “event” of some sort – much like today’s world except that the swirl came with the evening news with Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley rather than the 24x7 news cycle and the assault of Twitter from every political and social dimension you can think of. The important part of the conversations with Butch was that up until that time, he was the most conservative person I had ever had the opportunity to meet, debate and discuss the issues of the day.  My Dad often debated me and he was quite conservative but Butch made him look centrist.  Butch was an ardent – but extremely thoughtful – advocate for the conservative perspective in society.

Now imagine what a long-haired, university-based, student liberal who always wore a peace symbol around his neck from the early 1970s might be like when he sat down for coffee with Butch. Well, that was me!  The formative years of my life at university contained the rich experiences of the Vietnam War in a far off land, Kent State shootings in Ohio, the Watergate scandals in DC, the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and a host of other experiences that pushed me toward the more liberal perspective.  If you don’t know about these events, follow the hyperlinks.  You’ll get a sense of the discord that exuded America in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  It was a period where a distraught society boiled over in anger – until we finally sat down and listened, for a while, to one another.  The time for listening has returned…

But, back to my story.  Despite my political leanings, I was quite taken by Butch.  He was not only the most conservative person I had ever interacted with, he was also one of the most learned.  Here we were, out on the prairie in North Dakota sitting around a kitchen table, debating the tenor of the times and Butch was quoting John Locke, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton and other conservative thought leaders.  He was awesome!  He never raised his voice.  He always looked you in the eye.  He often would smile in an exchange where he disagreed and point out that he disagreed, very politely. 

What I learned from Butch, in addition to the ideology of conservativism, was the beginning skills of listening.  We would sip our coffee, I would pontificate about some burning (often in a very real sense) issue of the day and Butch would listen.  He would then listen some more.  Finally, he would offer his thoughts in a very reasoned fashion and often with a fleck of humor.  Through our dialogue I learned that I needed to be prepared.  I needed to think my position through.  I needed to more fully understand alternative viewpoints to make sure that my viewpoint could stand the test of time.  I learned to listen (NOTE:  I’m still learning – just ask my wife :-)  ).

Butch was not only intelligent but he was able to lay out a perspective on an issue we were debating by cementing his ideas together with perspectives that made sense. His listening was disarming.  His reasoning was clear and often data filled.  The important lesson in the art of listening I learned was that it was important for those of us sitting around the table to be equally clear with similar precision as we articulated our rebuttal positions.  With Butch you didn’t simply flame out.  You did not pontificate – which is something we hear from both sides of the aisle far too much these days.  You didn’t yell or call people names.  In order to respond effectively as an artful listener, we learned that the same degree of clarity on thought, distillation of information and formation of perspective that Butch offered must be constructed for our arguments if we were going to withstand the thoughtful responses of Butch’s positions and perspectives.  By listening, he often gained the upper hand in our discussions and for some, he even carried the day.  I admired Butch.  He embodied what my good friend, Senator David Durenberger (R-MN) once offered to me in a conversation at my home when he said, “We need to listen to the other side to make a difference.” I must say that I have diligently attempted to adopt Dave’s philosophy as my working mantra over the years as part of my foundation for learning the art of listening.

To this day, I count Butch – and, Dave by the way – as a couple of the most influential people in my life – along with Tommy Joe, which is whole other story.  By virtue of demonstration, Butch revealed an important skill that is woefully undeveloped among too many leaders and missing from today’s societal dialogue.  Too many leaders are not listening very well.  Yet, to gain the respect and gratitude of those who sit around our proverbial kitchen tables, listening is one of the most important skills that has been shunted aside among the diatribes we often hear in today’s political debates. Listening is a skill that requires honing every day of your life as a leader.  It is a skill that you must always monitor to assure it is on full alert and omnipresent in your life so that it can be called upon at a moment’s notice. 

So, on this Veteran’s Day 2018, I encourage all of us to ponder the most wonderful gift we have been given by our forefathers  and the veterans who have served our nation – the ability to listen and figure out for ourselves what we believe and where we want our communities and nation to stand.  Unlike so many societies both present and past, we in the United States of America are so very gifted to have the right of freedom of expression.  Let’s not destroy it by not listening to one another.  In fact, sometimes the best lessons in life come from sitting around the kitchen table.  I encourage all of us to take time on Veteran’s Day to not only honor our veterans but to reflect on what they have given us.

Finally, I would like to salute my Uncle Gary and one of my life long friends, Ralph for their service to our country.  Uncle Gary rose to the level of Master Sargent which is the very highest rank for an enlisted person who enters the military.  He served in many locations throughout the world during the course of his career – including in Vietnam, a war I opposed.  And, also to Ralph who enlisted midway through college after receiving a low lottery number in the draft during the Vietnam War.  He did the practical thing and enlisted. Irony of ironies, Uncle Gary and Ralph ended up working directly together in Vietnam.  It is, in fact, a very small world.  And, that is yet another story for another day…

Now, to close out – please note that I frequently disagree with Uncle Gary and Ralph on any number of issues but, I always listen – just like I did with Butch. It is important to listen and to understand because it is only by understanding that we learn to use our knowledge for making a difference.  Again, thank you to all of the vets – of all perspectives, all    persuasions, and from all cultures – who have served on the front lines of democracy so that we can have our debates, engage in our discussions, and hold our dialogues.  But, we need to remember that we will only move forward by also engaging in the opportunity to listen as part of our assembly as families, as communities, as a nation…

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