Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
Desiderata: Tell your truth quietly and clearly; listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
A gentleman listens. Yes, even to the dull and the ignorant, of which there are unhappily so many. In a world of noisy distractions, few really listen, even to themselves. But a gentleman listens carefully to everyone with whom he speaks. Like Young Caine, or Simon and Garfunkel, you can start by listening to the sounds of silence.
People like to talk. You probably like to talk. But if you want people to enjoy your company, the key is listening, not talking. Good listeners – those who really pay attention, and even remember what has been said – are few and far between. Your friends may not realize you’re a good listener, but they will seek out your company, especially when they’re troubled.
If you listen carefully you will learn how to really help your friends, and, when appropriate, obliterate your enemies. You’ll be a great salesman, because really persuasive people spend more time listening than talking. A side benefit is that you do less talking yourself, thus revealing fewer of those things which really shouldn’t be revealed.
Being a good listener, and paying attention to people, will also mark you as a man of distinction, because so few people have this skill. If you really listen, you will also focus; really pay attention. In a world in which everyone seems to have an iPod or other musical device in their ear, learn the art of paying attention. If you’re talking on your cell phone while driving, or eating, or doing anything else, you’re not really listening, you’re just pretending to listen, or waiting or talk.
Of course, most people focus at certain times; a man listens to a beautiful woman he has just met. An employee probably listens very carefully to the boss during a salary review, even if at no other time. But a gentleman listens to whoever he happens to engage in conversation. Even the guy at the deli counter – if they’re important enough to talk to, they’re important enough to focus on.
This will be hard to take for many modern men, beloved of constant distraction and electronic toys, but paying attention necessitates turning it all off; portable music players of all types, cell phones, Blackberry, the whole personal arcade. See how quiet it is? Don’t know what to do with yourself? Just listen.
If you really care about being kind to people, you will cultivate the art of listening carefully, because to listen carefully to someone – to really care enough to pay attention, is one of the greatest compliments, and gifts, one person can give another. In a world of constantly distracted, unfocused people, talking on their cells while they check their email, this is a rare and much appreciated skill. Try it.
A corollary of listening and paying attention is the patience to stay where you are. Someone who is a good listener is someone who is so focused on what they are hearing that they aren’t preparing to bolt to their next appointment. As you speak, they are looking straight at you, not over your shoulder to see what bigger names might be in the room. Their body posture indicates that, rather than looking for an opportunity to flee, they are prepared to sit, or stand, and listen to what you say, for however long you have to say it. They don’t interrupt, but only speak often enough to thoughtfully respond to questions or to acknowledge and encourage the speaker. While you are speaking they have their cell phone, and another other electronic devices, silenced.
If you can’t bring yourself to listen to others out of kindness or consideration, think of it as a power play. Knowledge, especially knowledge about other people, is power. The more you listen and learn, the more power you have. The less you talk, the less power your adversaries will have.