Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Colum McCann, author of “Let the Great World Spin” and “TransAtlantic,” speak at the Books for Lunch program, sponsored by The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, OH. What was intended to be a simple outing with my colleagues became a surprising reminder of the power of listening, and its ability to transform every area of our lives.
I can’t think of anything kinder than to share these three inspiring lessons with you:
“The capacity for otherness is vital to our human endeavor.”
McCann began his talk by acknowledging the painful current events of hatred and violence, and of the closed mindedness that breeds these acts. “In order to address closed-mindedness with open-mindedness,” he said, “we need to first understand what makes a closed mind closed.” The only way to do this is through listening and empathy, the ability for which separates us from virtually all other species.
Yet, we frequently ignore these precious abilities in lieu of talking, defending or controlling a conversation. McCann recalled a visit to Sandy Hook, following the tragedy, where he was surprised at how the school children didn’t need him to say anything, but simply to listen. “I allowed them the space to tell their story – and to talk it out of themselves,” he recalled.
Pause here to take that in.
To talk it out of themselves. What a gift…to be deeply listened to. And not just to our words, but to the spirit behind them. I am reminded of the wisdom of “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who advised his friend to listen with the heart because, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
- Ask yourself, who in my life today, could benefit from my listening, without interruption, to their story?
“I want optimism to become a muscular thing.”
How I love this visual image of optimism! Not as a cotton candy attitude, but as something strong and purposeful. McCann is unashamed of his idealism, which he defines as optimism plus hope. He challenges us to “put muscular hope into our daily lives by embracing otherness: putting optimism into closed minds not by forcing our own attitudes on others but by ‘getting under the skin of their experience.’”
He told the story of former Senator George Mitchell, who at age 64 traveled to Ireland to negotiate a seemingly un-brokerable peace treaty. It took him 3 years. And for the entirety of the first year, all he did was listen, which, according to McCann, is no easy task in Ireland. Reference popular regional humor:
Q: “What is Irish Alzheimer’s?”
A: “Forgetting everything but a grudge.”
For the past 16 years, Ireland has been enjoying relative peace thanks to the efforts of this man who dared to begin a daunting task with listening.
I feel strangled and small when I think of grand stories like these, yet I don’t think transformation needs to be viewed on only a global scale.
- Think of a team or a team member with whom you are having some difficulty. How might the situation shift – even slightly – if you only listened today, without judgment or direction?
“The life of an adult is so UNFINISHED.”
McCann remembered his eagerness as a youngster to become a grown-up. And now, having arrived at that elusive place, his greatest surprise is that an adult’s life isn’t as tidy and figured out as he had once imagined.
This could be depressing. Or, it could be freeing. The concepts of closure, control, knowing, and getting ground under our feet are all illusions.
McCann referenced a brain study, one of those experiments where live people’s brains are wired with electrodes and monitors. “If you tell your own story,” he explained, “your brain is like a circus.” Lots of colorful neural activity and blinking lights. “But, when you listen to someone else’s story and tell it back to them, your brain is like a CARNIVAL!”
As one of my longtime mentors said to me recently, “Listening is the most intimate gift we can give another human being.”
- How might my quality of life improve today by allowing someone with whom I’m in a relationship the space to “tell their story out of themselves?”
I look forward to hearing how your life – at work or at home — is changed by this.
Linda Tefend, CMF, Career and Image Coach, is one of Career Partners International – Cincinnati’s most sought-after speakers on topics related to career, image and transition. She is passionate about helping and empowering others to navigate life transitions. Linda’s fun and engaging style makes intimidating or uncomfortable topics more easily digestible to audiences. Some of her favorite presentations are ‘What to do When You’re Not in Kansas Anymore,’ ‘Cashing In on Dressing Up,’ and ‘LinkedIn and Your Job Search.’
Career Partners International provides top quality talent management services to organizations of all sizes. Their offices around the world help assess, engage, develop, and transition talent in any industry. To find out more about Career Partners International and how you can maximize your organizational performance, reach out to an office near you or contact us today!