Opinion | Paul Olson: Alexa, you are such a good listener.

Pew Research has been monitoring our trust in the government since the 1950s. In a 2022 survey only 20% of Americans trusted the government to do what is right most of the time. This compares with 77% having significant trust in the government in 1964. Were our leaders more honest six decades ago, or were people just not paying attention?

Much of our mistrust in government comes from a feeling of a lack of control over the decisions that affect our lives. We get the impression our leaders aren’t listening to us and don’t respect the voice of “we the people.” Our leaders may be too distracted by the TV cameras and adoring Twitter followers to hear us unless we have enough cash and influence. President Calvin Coolidge told us, “It takes a great man to be a good listener.” Perhaps Silent Cal may not have been an introvert but instead was focused on what people were saying.

Consider the people we have entrusted to be on town councils, the school board or on the boards of nonprofits. On first thought, we may favor them for their experience or eloquence, but I bet we like them because they are good listeners. When there is a public meeting in Summit County, we want our leaders to be listening to the input from citizens, asking the right questions and carefully pondering the opinions and evidence that is presented. Of course we elect our officials to weigh all the facts and make the most reasonable decision for the good of the county and not just being swayed by the loudest voices in the audience. And we must accept that sometimes the best answer to our request is “no.”

Many research studies indicate that men have poorer listening skills than women and have a tendency to spoil a good conversation by interrupting too much. Perhaps some of the problems in Congress are the result of men holding 71% of the seats and focusing too much on butting in to impress their colleagues instead of listening.

We may be putting far too much blame on politicians for the division in our nation. Each of us may be at fault for not taking the time to listen to our neighbors who have different opinions on political issues. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that once we truly understand another person we cannot help but love them. That may be quite a stretch in the political world, but if we each become a better listener it cannot help but improve cooperation in our nation.

Time Magazine’s Feb. 6 cover story advises us to “Zip It,” and urges us to consider “the power of saying less.” Social media leads us to believe that we need to dominate the dialog whether on Instagram or among a group of friends and success can only be “measured by how much attention we can attract.” The article points out that there is a genetic factor in over-talking, but we can each practice better impulse control to shut up a little bit more and in doing so gain more friends and actually have more influence at work and harmony in our homes.

Much of our listening handicap comes from thinking we are so smart. We don’t pay attention when we believe we have nothing to learn about the world or the person in front of us. As educator Stephen Covey reminds us, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Consider our thought process when someone else is talking: agree; disagree; got a good comeback for that; strongly disagree; I knew that; disagree; maybe agree. It is impossible to listen effectively and think of a response at the same time. Have a goal of learning from the speaker or just enjoying the listening. You don’t need to respond instantly. Relax and ponder what has been said. 

A great impediment to listening comes from not being in the present moment and forgetting to give all your attention to the speaker and their message. Think about how focused you are when flying down a tough mogul run or returning a tennis serve. In conversation, it is easy to let your mind wander to how you forgot to call Aunt Agnes this morning or to the things you need to get done tomorrow. When your mind strays you become a lousy listener. It can be helpful to pretend the person you are listening to is the most important person in the world. And perhaps they are.

A rude reckoning can come to over-talkers when they become parents. Lengthy wisdom-filled monologs are routinely tuned out by children. Parents who instead are attentive to what their kids have to say will find family life much more pleasant, especially during the teen years.

I have found that in any conversation with family or friends, I only get in trouble when speaking but never when listening.

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