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)

24 thoughts on “The Kindness of Generous Listening…

    • Yes, I would imagine that smile and nod response certainly comes in handy with an engineer. And, if your husband is anything like mine, Janis, you have the added bonus of every home repair done perfectly with precision that would be the envy of NASA!

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  1. That is so true. I read out my book and theatre reviews to my daughter, a sympathetic listener. She often has something helpful to say, but just reading them to her gives me a chance to hear if they make sense.

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    • That’s a great way to assess the continuity and content of your reviews, Carol, and also to strengthen your writer voice. Getting some good feedback is an added bonus. I often hear writers say they always read their work aloud—it allows them to hear things they might not see on the page. I need to do that more consistently. Thank you for commenting—so good to hear from you!


  2. Excellent Donna. I think we might have been at the same conference. I remember hearing that repeating/explaining three times what you learn to people will help you remember what you learned. I’ve used that advice for years. I’ve never questioned that blank stare and nod state from Scott! The practice has come in real handy when I need to explain tips and tricks on candle and soap making to my customers.

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    • I bet you were at that conference, Dana! The speaker’s advice really stuck with me, too. I ended up hiring her to keynote a WSAE conference the following year, so you may have heard her there, as well! So good to hear from you. Thanks for reading and commenting! Hope you are well, soon-to-be grandma!


  3. Great post on a great blog Donna. I just stumbled upon your blog for the first time and will definitely be following. PS: I loved your aside about mondegreen.

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  4. Wonderful post, Donna. I so enjoy your sense of humor. And I’m enamored with this new word-treasure to add to my hoard: mondegreen! John Prine tells the best anecdote about a woman who went up to him onstage, insisting he play the song about “A HAPPY ENCHILADA”. He finally figured out she was asking for the song “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round,” with the lyric “…it’s A HALF AN INCH OF WATER (and you think you’re gonna drown)….” 🙂

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    • Oh, I love that John Prine song, Kris! Love John Prine, period. Now, when I hear it, I’ll insert the happy enchilada lyric. I just wonder how many mondegreens there are that I will never know I am belting out incorrectly. Thanks for your great comment, my friend!


  5. I always enjoy your insights (and wit), Donna. I’ve carried a lot of guilt about not listening more attentively, as well–if Wandering Thoughts was an Olympic event I’d hold the world record. I’ve never heard the term mondegreen until now, btw. For years I thought the old Four Tops tune was “Sugar Fried Honeybuns” (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).

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    • You mean that’s NOT the lyric, Mitch! Maybe Wandering Thoughts is the sign of an agile and creative mind…let’s believe that even if it isn’t true. Thanks for your kind words.


  6. Very interesting information. I think that often when we do not understand or we are not interested in something (certainly am speaking for myself at the least) we tend not to really listen. But this makes a very good point. Because it is true that if we are NOT listening then of course we will NEVER get it, but as you described there can be an occasional glimmer here and there of understanding that makes for better communication.

    Fascinating to read about the wide divergence between you and your husband with regard to background and interests. I think it happens quite often, making this a very relevant piece of writing!


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    • I think you’re right, Peta, that we tend to have a built-in filter that screens out information that doesn’t interest us or pertain to us. It’s that old WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) station that plays 24/7. We do need to be aware when we give ourselves permission to not understand that not understanding is not the same as not listening. Thanks for your very perceptive comment!


  7. Great post, Donna. I’m so glad you commented on my post as it nudged me to check out your blog. My daughter earned her degree in comparative literature (U.S,, Russian, and German with a little French). My husband was an engineer and did statistical quality control – has always been a genius at home repairs (plus cleans the house better than I do). I love learning new things about the brain and how we learn. I love thinking about thinking. I think we will be great blogging buddies! Oh, and I read your first paragraph and thought – Ahh, she’s an English major.

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    • Pat, conversations in your home must be diverse and stimulating! And how lucky we are to have husbands who not only handle any home repair, but also cook and clean (better than we do). Since I’ve been following your blog I’ve sensed a connection so I look forward to being blogging buddies!


  8. I too am married to one who majored in Physics but now works as a software engineer. Smiling and nodding, I’ve become pretty good at that. And just like you, Donna, once in a while I surprise both of us when I ask an intelligent question. That’s very rare but it’s happened! 😀

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    • Hi, Therese, there seem to be a lot of us more literary types who wind up with scientists and engineers. I suspect there’s some truth to that “opposites attract” theory. And on those rare occasions when we actually get something they’re explaining, it’s like a lovely glimpse of another world. Fun to visit, but not where I want to live. Thanks for your comment. I so enjoy following your blog!

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      • Thanks, Donna! I’m always grateful for your feedback on my posts. And I enjoy following your blog as well. It’s one of the few that actually make me think. 🙂

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