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Snark Attack – or How I Am Trying to Learn How to Listen

Stop. Stare, maybe. Pause, look down. Deep breath. Smile. Say (just a few!) words of encouragement. Is the other person done speaking? Give a few more seconds for them to finish their thoughts. If you can add some value with a thought that builds upon what they offered, offer it up.

Here, right here, is where a probing question would fit perfectly.

The first four sentences that you have just read… are me, as a work in progress. Does any of it come easily, naturally? Heck no, this is so far from my default setting that I honestly had to think through all of these as I tried to write them just now.

For the longest time, my mantra was: “Don’t ever be on the defensive. Let them have it with both barrels first, and after that see if they have even the slightest urge or desire to respond.”

Hello everyone, my name is Tom, and I am a smartass. Never intending to be mean spirited, I just had a personal war on silence, on thoughtful pauses, on reflection.

I have always gravitated to funny people, the hysterically funny, never at a loss for words, quick with a rejoinder, pretty good at one-upmanship… kind of people. But only because I wanted to be like them. That guy, as funny as he was, and maybe only funny in my own memory, in my own mind, or in my own imagination, was never very good at listening.

I listened superficially, as if everyone was my personal sidekick or straight man or woman – if I was speaking to you, your job was to lob me verbal softballs so I could knock them out of the park.

As I age, and I am aging, it has occurred to me that there is richness and texture and beauty and wonder in the words we speak to each other. I have not perfected listening, and as a human being, I doubt that I ever will be perfect at anything. And I hope that I don’t become perfect at anything. I like that steady climb upward; I wouldn’t be any good at trying to repeat perfection over and over.

I need to listen better for lots of reasons. One very good reason is that I spent far too much time, the better part of 30 years, in the industrial sector without the proper hearing protection, so now my hearing can really suck sometimes. I have tried to gently encourage my wife that if she is not within direct earshot of me if she can’t see me or is pointed away from me, I will not hear her. I need to pay closer attention, to listen more closely, to focus on what is being said and how it is being said.

The practice of being present is important. If I ever perfect that, I know that my wife will keel over dead on the spot. If the TV is on, if a newspaper is nearby, if the scrolling thing is happening, if I am lost in thought… whatever speech is being directed at me shall be as profound and as memorable as any words spoken by an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah…” (possible inflection up at the end there…).

I like to say that all of us are a whole lot smarter than any one of us. But the only way to really benefit by that is if everyone has a chance to speak, and to be heard. If I’m trying to be Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield in a room or a conversation, there isn’t a lot of depth, or a lot of substance, and not a lot of opportunity for others to contribute.

Like anything, like everything, listening is a learned behavior. It’s an art, it’s a generous gesture, it’s part of being interesting. I love people, I love interacting with people. I love learning what others have to say.

It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a new me resolution. Besides, I started this a while back, and by writing a manifesto like this (sounds important, and impressive, yes?) I hope to invite accountability and reminders from others. Like anything new, I will stumble, regress, maybe even say “Screw it,” and give up. I don’t have to give up on being me, I just have to get a little better at it and get a little better at things that make me better, a little bit at a time.

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Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I believe it was Mark Twain that said, “I learn more by listening than by talking”. Of course very few of us learn to be good listeners. In addition to listening being a learned skill, it can be and often is complicated by physical limitations, as some have noted.

    For those that believe a set of hearing aids will solve the problem, I can attest to the fact that it won’t. What they will do is amplify and they amplify everything. So, if the TV is on and your spouse says something while facing away from you or is in an adjoining room you probably won’t get it. This is a problem even for the $6,000 sets. So, your family members must learn some new tactics too. Like getting your attention before they begin to speak, facing you when talking, and speaking more slowly than may have been their habit.

    Hearing problems can create some funny moments though. When your spouse says, “I put the box in the attic”, you don’t get some of the words and subconsciously fill in the blanks. So, what you get is “I caught the fox in the attic”.

    As a side note, before you shell out several thousand on hearing aids, be sure the audiologist checks for wax in your ears.

  2. Loved this! So “as a matter of fact” in its consumption. I suppose we all must just assume that what was said is being heard and that like most who listen we’ve already begun our subconscious rebuttal before half of what is said has concluded.
    I think I got that!

  3. I so enjoy your writing, Tom, and your insights, manifestos, and stories. Thanks for sharing this piece with us. Listening skills are essential to many areas of our life, and I know that mine could be better and are due for recalibration. I always say that baby steps are better than no steps. So, here’s to whatever tiny steps we are trying to take this year and the progress and achievement that comes with them.

    Thanks for sharing, Tom.

  4. I thought part of my difficulty in holding my tongue was a result of being underestimated because I’m physically small, and because until I was in my mid 30s, people assumed I was a teenager. I felt like I had to speak up and speak loudly to be seen as an adult.

    And now, here we are, Tom, realizing that the best way to express wisdom is to listen closely and hold space for others. It’s sometimes the best and most difficult strategy in resolving conflict and helping others to self-reflect and see where they might be getting in their own way.

    Most excellent post, my friend.

  5. I believe that the key is the awareness that listening is simply learning what others have to say and therefore an act of respect and humility. Listening holds back from wanting to assert itself at all costs, from resolutely pursuing one’s ideas, from seeking consensus by any means.
    Develop the ability to listen is a healthy, supportive, enriching exercise, especially in a society like today where many people need to be heard.

  6. Oh my, Tom… I don’t know where to start with this one. How about here: “listening is a learned behavior. It’s an art, it’s a generous gesture, it’s part of being interesting.” That is so true, so simple, and yet so very rare. The only thing I’d add to that is that listening is perhaps the most genuine gift one person can give another. At a time when people feel isolated and lonely, tethered to devices and logged on to social media, yet more disconnected than ever, addressing the issue of listening with healthy portion of humility, some self-deprecating insights, and a side of sarcasm may be the best thing I’ve read today. Thank you!

  7. I love the sparking honesty with which you wrote this piece Tom. We are all works-in-progress whether we are aware of it or not, ready to admit it or not. ‘It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a new me resolution.’ This nails your self-awareness recalling Aristotle’s wonderful quotation: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

    I also believe in listening to understand or at least try to understand self and others. Thank you for sharing.

    P.S. When you have a moment, I invite you to dip into this: https://www.bizcatalyst360.com/baring-the-bones-of-silence/

  8. I completely appreciate the self-awareness you’ve offered here, Tom. I completely agree that listening (or speaking from the heart-for instance) is not about perfection, but practice. As a person at the other end of the continuum of this challenge-I’ve often remained utterly silent when I wished I had spoken a “smartass” remark as a commitment to my own dignity, sense of empowerment, or as a way to create laughter that broke the tension. I believe we can eventually find our way to some middle ground place of being better at listening, knowing when to be quiet, when to speak up, when to walk away, when to run. (like “the Gambler” :) )Being aware of our “audience” can be quite helpful…colleagues, friends, clients, family, etc. and the context-a quiet library, a restaurant, a meeting room, our living room, a celebration, a comedy show…

    Just like you might err on the side of speaking, I imagine that I’ll likely continue to err on the side of silence (even when speaking up would be an important thing to do!). And maybe in some situation in the future I’ll shock people who know me well by blurting out some smartass remark. Probably will need to be quite provoked or working on some comedy riff…

    When I’m writing, I enter a zone that all around me disappears. My kids would say “a bomb could go off and mom would keep writing.” People in my life have learned to approach me and touch my shoulder gently (when I’m writing) as a way to get my attention before they speak-if they actually want to be heard.

    As you can tell, your article completely resonated with me as I learn to be better at speaking up and to continue practicing connecting with that silent deep well of presence which regularly mixes with a busy, introspective mind, and a wide open heart.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful writing, your honesty, this article. I love this topic! Can you tell?!?! And I appreciate you!

  9. Dang it! This is so good, Tom! You are my favorite smart ass, just so you know. My son is one, but he just annoys me. I think you’re charming. This: “It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a new me resolution.” Brilliant.

  10. Tom, a person who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t care to listen, who doesn’t understand the need to listen, who doesn’t suspect the beauty and wonder in listening, and who doesn’t respect the speaker enough to listen would never have written the piece you wrote.

    We’re all works in progress. Our willingness to learn and to grow ensures our progress will be positive. You’re a very good man, my friend. And I’m grateful for our connection and everything we share.

    P.S. I have an appointment with an audiologist on the 31st of this month. My hearing isn’t as bad as my wife says it is. 😉 But I definitely need some help.

    • Mark, the guy who wrote that piece is simply aware that no matter our lofty goals and expectations of ourselves, we will always fall short somewhere, somehow. As I said it doesn’t come naturally to me, so this writing exercise is about a practice that I need to continue to remind myself about. We should always try to listen as intently as we try to pick up on conversations just out of earshot that we think are more interesting or one’s where we suspect that we are the subject of said conversation. Maybe we have to make believe that every conversation is one that we are trying to eavesdrop on.

      I think an audiologist might be in my future too. Who knew that getting old was such a process? I definitely appreciate your thoughtful perspectives, and they never fail to make me smile.

  11. OMG, Tom! OMG. Laughing so hard I can’t breathe! This is just SO true of my early years, too! I felt so misunderstood so early in life and so often that talking became my only defense … or so I thought.

    I didn’t aspire to be a wise-ass, but I sure didn’t shut my mouth often enough.

    It took a long time and several successes to find my spot in the universe, to realize my value to myself and to others, and to shut the hell up. Yeah. Shut up. Stop talking. Give the other person some space, some time, some opportunities for their words and thoughts. I have found that the more comfortable I am with myself, the easier it has become to allow others to shine. The inner woman has finally gained enough sense of being good enough that she doesn’t need to shout it to the world.

    I couldn’t have imagined this as a kid, even as a young adult.

    And my ears don’t work well either, not from my long-ago work, but just because they don’t. My age. Whatever. I can totally relate!

    Sorry I won’t meet you at the NLV this year; actually, I won’t meet anyone. Pity, but I have a couple of big expenses on the horizon, and I need to be able to take care of them first.

    Awesome article, Tom! Loved it!

    • Thank you Susan, it was just a late weeknight stare down with my laptop, and I just went with what my fingers tapped out. I think it was germinating in my brain for a few days, but as with anything that I write, I wasn’t sure that there was much meat on this bone. After a day or so, low and behold, I chuckled right along with you, as it appeared that I had put something out there with a little sass and verve. Putting out a piece like this is kind of a social contract, and I hope that the world is somewhat gentle and kind in the way that they hold me accountable, but truth be known, that those who have in the past encountered Tom the Blowtorch might prefer my head on a block, but now I would be speaking gently with them and listening to whatever it is that they have to say. I need continual (continuous?) reminders of not only am I a work in progress, but the last word is very important… to keep making progress. It doesn’t mean that the progress is in leaps in bounds, but consistent, persistent progress of some kind is the key.

      So sorry that you can’t make it to NLV this year, I get it, I had to miss it last year. Thank you for your support and for the kind and generous remarks. I do appreciate them very much!

    • Me too, Susan! It has taken me decades to learn to hold space for others, rather than always be the one to speak first and loudly. Even though I was shy until my late 30s, in certain circumstances I had similar responses to how you and Tom describe it. My ears work fine, but boy do I have to remind myself often to shut up and listen!

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