Two hunters are out in the woods when suddernly, one of them falls to the ground. The other hunter checks frantically but his friend doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are rolled back in his head.
He starts to panic and whips out his cell phone to call 911. When he gets through, he frantically blurts out to the operator, “My friend Barry is dead! He just suddenly keeled over. What should I do?” The operator, trying to calm him down says, “Take it easy. I can help. Just listen to me and follow my instructions. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There’s a short pause, and then the operator hears a loud gunshot! The hunter comes back on the line and says, “OK, now what?”
As you might have surmised from this story, listening is really important. Earlier we read about Joseph, the son of Jacob, who got sold into slavery by his brothers. Perhaps, if Joseph had talked less about his dreams of grandeur, and spent more time listening, events would have played out very differently.
One of my favorite teachings about listening comes from the famous television and radio host Larry King. He put it like this: “We don’t learn anything when we are talking.”
When we meet someone new and regale them with tales of our exploits and escapades, are we truly getting to know them? Who is this person in front of me? What’s on their mind? Are they in pain? Is there something they need to say to someone?
We don’t grow by talking. We don’t learn anything new about ourselves or the world. We forfeit the experiences of others.
Sometimes I find myself engaged in one-on-one conversation with someone at a social function, and realize that I’m not really listening to them. Instead, I’m just waiting to respond. We have these scripts in our head: anecdotes we recount, jokes we tell, a list of what we’ve been up to recently. In these moments we listen for an opening – a moment to jump in and read our script – instead of opening ourselves to listen. Rabbi Rami Shapiro argues that it is these conversations, where we put away the script and truly listen, that really count.
Listening is especially important before making decisions. Nelson Mandela, who passed away this week, held this skill in high esteem. He said:
“As a leader… I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
The truth is though, that while learning and making decisions are important, there is one much more important function that listening plays. Simply being present for another human being.
We have all had moments when there is something bothering us – whether it has already happened or is something yet to come. Bizarrely, we ask for guidance, but that isn’t what we actually want. We just want to be listened to. We just want someone to acknowledge our pain. We just want to channel our difficult emotions at someone else so that we can move on.
There’s more. Let me give you an example. I can remember times in my life where I have been upset about an aspect of Jewish observance amongst Conservative Jews. In those moments, while I thought I was upset about a specific incident, the truth was actually very different. The truth was that I was feeling insecure about my own religious choices and feeling anxious for the authenticity of my own Judaism.
Thus, often when a person seems to be upset about a specific issue or incident, that is not what is upsetting them at all. If you suspect that this is the case, you should respond to the emotions they are displaying, rather than the issue they are talking about. Only when we pay close attention, and truly listen to the other person – their words and emotional tone combined – can we truly understand how best to be of service to them.
In sum, there’s probably a reason God gave us two ears but just one mouth. When we listen, we learn. When we listen we connect deeply with other human beings. When we listen we lend support to others and in that act of empathy, we flourish.
Our most sacred prayer is the Shema. “Shema” means simply “listen!” In order to find the divine in our lives, we must listen. We must open ourselves to the world around us. Only with our ears truly open can we hear the living rhythm that beats at the heart of the universe, and in the hearts of those around us.
So I guess that now I’ll stop talking and start listening.
Rabbi Marc Kraus – 12/7/2013