The Kindness of Generous Listening…

“To be kind is more important than to be right. Many times what people need is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a special heart that listens.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery once in a while, I come across a life-changing piece of knowledge.

Sometimes it’s something I want so much to be true and then discover that it actually is: Dark chocolate is good for you. So’s an occasional glass of red wine. Dark chocolate and red wine together are a truly splendid and healthy combination.

Sometimes it’s something I should have known but somehow never learned: Like the actual lyric to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man, is, “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone,” not “Rocket man, burning all the trees off every lawn.” [Irrelevant aside: this is a mondegreen, a misinterpretation of a phrase or lyric that alters the meaning. One of my favorites: “The girl with colitis goes by” rather than “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” in The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.]

Returning to relevance…. Sometimes it’s something that completely changes the way I look at the world: Many years ago at a conference I was attending, a neuroscientist was reporting on how we learn. She said it’s very important to listen to people who are trying to explain something to you, but, unless, you need the information for your job, or it’s something you really want to know, don’t feel obligated to understand what they’re telling you.

I was sure I’d misunderstood her. I raised my hand and asked her to repeat it, and then after her talk I went up to her and asked her for more explanation. When she finished explaining I wanted to kiss her, or buy her dinner. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A cauldron of churning guilt evaporated.

My husband is a physicist. He reads books about quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and advanced mathematics for pleasure. He subscribes to science magazines and solves calculus problems for fun in his leisure time. I majored in Russian literature and philosophy, and spent my career in nonprofit management—it’s a wonder we’ve kept the conversation going all these years. Fortunately, we both love The Dick Van Dyke Show.

When Bill gets excited about something he reads, he comes and finds me and explains it to me. He explains it in great detail and then describes the implications this new bit of knowledge holds for the future of science, or the future of the planet. Up until I heard the neuroscientist speak, I felt terrible that I didn’t understand a word of what he was telling me. I felt I was letting him down. I’d try to ask intelligent questions, but often the concepts were so foreign and abstract that I couldn’t even formulate a question. I just smiled and nodded, and felt inadequate.

Turns out that’s okay! Bill reinforces what he learns by explaining it to someone (me). That someone (me) doesn’t have to understand. Whether or not I comprehend what he’s telling me doesn’t affect the imprinting on his brain one way or another. As long as I’m willing to smile and nod, I’m holding up my end of the conversation just fine.

That was a huge revelation, and it removed years of guilt over the fact that I really don’t understand physics and probably never will.

Best of all, it works both ways. If I’m reading about nonprofit board dynamics, or designing a training module, I can sit Bill down and explain what I’m learning or what I’m trying to do. Sometimes he asks a great question or makes an astute suggestion. Often, he just smiles and nods. I always walk away with new insight and a grounding in something that lacked clarity before.

It was liberating for both of us to learn that we didn’t have to understand the other’s passion, or even pretend to understand. Bill still doesn’t really get what I do, even after I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years. Nor does he share my fervor for all things Dostoevsky. And I don’t fathom physics and can’t begin to wrap my brain around advanced calculus.

This permission to not understand isn’t a “pass” to stop trying to comprehend people who think differently than ourselves. We still need to extend effort to understand alternative points of view or opinions, and to engage in respectful discourse. That’s a basic tenet of civilized society—though one that is facing its own challenges these days. To do otherwise is to cease learning and close off our minds. It fosters ignorance, invites prejudice and ultimately even violence. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

While listening and understanding is ideal in our conversational relationships, when understanding is absent, the gift of generous listening is often sufficient. Think about that next time your spouse or child wants to explain something that’s outside your ken. And think about it, too, if you want to reinforce new knowledge and worry that your listener may not understand or be interested. It’s okay—neuroscience says so.

The weird thing is that after more than three decades of listening to Bill explain physics to me, every once in a while I grasp some of what I’m hearing and I ask a truly intelligent question.

I don’t know which of us is more surprised.

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” (Jean Jacques Rousseau)