Only listen

Everyone who knows me knows I have a big mouth. I love to talk, I love to give advice, I love to leap in with my take on something that I only just barely found out about. It doesn’t help that I often get rewarded for it: I get paid to write, paid to talk, paid to share my opinion and analysis.

The exception to this is when I do interviews. I was comparing notes with my husband, who is a reporter, on how readily people will tell us intensely private things. It is truly amazing what people will reveal.

I used to think I had some particular talent for getting folks to open up, but now I know I don’t. It’s just that most people want to talk, and if you ask them to, they will. They want to tell their stories. Most of all, they want someone to listen.

When I go to conferences as a speaker, I’m there primarily to (as the name implies) speak. But I’m also there to listen. For every 40 minutes I spend speaking, I spend about five hours listening. It happens before the speech and after the speech, in an out of the conference space, on the sidewalk, in the hotel, in the bathrooms, on the plane.

Last time I was at a conference, I ended up sitting in the bar of the hotel for three hours, listening to some woman pour her heart out to me, an utter stranger. She told me the most terrible, dreadful, astonishing, heartrending things, and it was very clear to me that my job was to get comfortable and receive it without comment. People want to tell their stories. People want someone to listen. They need it. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: The Old King (detail) by Georges Rouault; photo By Tabbycatlove – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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3 thoughts on “Only listen”

  1. I’m a doctor (primary care), and it took me a long time to figure out that mostly what I need to do is listen. Every day I keep reminding myself to shut up and listen to patients. Everything you said here is so very right. Thank you.

  2. My husband was a journalist for about 10 years and did a lot of interviews. He himself, like you, is talkative. He was always surprised at how much people would tell him. While his interviewees were on a roll, he always stopped them and ask “on the record or off?” Even if it was off the record, he kept engaged and listening. He got a reputation for being reliable and fair, trying to get both sides of a story. When he became an editor, the first question he’d ask his reporters was whether they contacted the “other side”. If they didn’t he wouldn’t approve the article for publishing. Everyone has a story to tell, whether they are on “your side” or not, whether they have your worldview or not. Just listen.

    1. I’ve been to one of your talks at a conference and I can attest to your attentive listening behavior (I was shocked by this, tbh), and also your baby snatching behavior (which did not surprise me).

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