Two Ears, One Mouth

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey

There’s an old, old quote that tells us that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we talk. I’ve done a cursory search and been unable to turn up a reliable accreditation for it, but we’ve all heard a version of it many, many times. I think the first time I heard it was Marine Corps boot camp, but I’m far from certain of that.

At any rate, the intent is clear; we talk far too much and listen far too little.

Why is that? Why are we driven to interrupt and interject? Why do we feel the need to be heard?

This is a battle I fight constantly. Generally, I have my ego fairly tamed and under control, but it is in just this conversational context that it rears its ugly head most often. I have an experience that relates to the line, and I can’t wait to share it! I begin, knowing I should really just keep my mouth shut and allow others their time in the spotlight, but hey, my story is KEY to this, I swear! So, I start to interject, battling my knowledge that it’s really my ego asserting itself, and someone else cuts in just as I was about to.   Dammit! Wait…yes, this is me understanding that I should just listen…   Until the next lull, then…crap.   The conversation moved right past my point. Better that way, I guess…darn it…

This is especially true when we’re gossiping or rumor-mongering. The opportunity to belittle someone else is one we seem loathe to let pass. “The guy that trained him was a total crook, so I bet he’s no better…” or some such. Any chance to show ourselves as better or more deserving (even though it actually proves just the opposite to be true) is one we rarely let slip away.

But whom do we serve with these little “insights” and quips? Are we saving the world? Are we helping someone? Are we accomplishing anything whatsoever?

Or are we feeding our own ego’s need to elevate itself in the eyes of others?

As I said above, I struggle with this mightily, but it is with but one focus that I try very hard to temper my inputs and butt-ins: “Is it necessary?”

If you look back at the last few group conversations at work and examine your part in the circle, how much of what you said was necessary? Even the sports stories and child-rearing exploits. Was what you said necessary and helpful to the conversation, or was it the contextual version of “mine’s bigger”? Did your story bring enlightenment to the subject at hand, or did it just bring you a moment at center stage?

I’m not judging you, I promise.   Nor should you. No recriminations whatsoever. I just wonder how many of us honestly remember what was actually said in those office nattering sessions? Did we actually listen and seize the opportunity to learn?   Or did we just jabber?   Yesterday, I just jabbered.   Aimlessly. And, aside from those directly affecting the business at hand, I honestly cannot remember what a single one of the dozens of conversations I was part of were about.

Why does any of this matter?   Where is the harm in empty chit-chat?

Very possibly it doesn’t.   Very possibly it was just five minutes or so of general (and important) male bonding. But was the chattering really harmless? Or was there maybe a little venom in there, just a little nip at someone “outside” the group? More importantly, did I miss an opportunity? Was there something in the context that I could have picked up on that signaled a subtle call for help? Is one of my friends secretly in need?

I’ll never know now. I didn’t listen, I just talked. I laughed, which is very important and wonderful, but why didn’t I listen? What might I have heard if I had just listened?

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