What are the virtues of a good listener? What are the dangers of listening? Dr. Mark McCullough answers these questions.
What are the virtues of a good listener? In the weeks that follow, I will answer this question in four installments: in the first three installments I concentrate on four different virtues important for good listening: generosity, curiosity, compassion, and courage. In the fourth and final installment, I discuss dangers for the listener, each one corresponding with its companion virtue by looking closely at the role of listening in the poem The Divine Comedy written by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante. I conclude by offering advice on how to avoid being pulled into the self-destructive narratives that we hear others tell themselves as well as those fictions we tell ourselves.
Generosity is the first virtue of a good listener because, without it, we cannot practice the other virtues important for listening. Like prudence, which Thomas Aquinas called the “mother” of other cardinal virtues, generosity gives birth to curiosity, compassion, and courage. These are the gifts of generosity, and this virtue is characterized by abundance.
When we listen, we give our time and our attention. Time and attention are no small gifts. Neither is patience which is a capacity for and an offering of our time and attention. This offering is characterized by calm confidence. Listening starts when we patiently give our time and attention and wait. We do not simply tolerate waiting while listening for something to emerge. We accept waiting as a condition of emergence, either in the form of words or silence.
Originally, the word “generosity” characterized a person of “excellence or noble birth.” Though no longer the meaning we associate with it, there is a lesson to be found in this word’s origin. Anyone can be a generous listener but to practice listening well is to present oneself habitually as having the capacity to give with minimal diminishment. Such a capacity suggests potential as when we say for example that a particular animal breed is “good stock.” In other words, the breed promises great things based on prior success. Listening, too, has a history and this is why we often return to others we consider “good listeners” when we feel we need to be heard (more on this “need” later).
Notice above how I wrote “to practice listening well is to present oneself…”. Listening, like most relational acts, has an element of presentation. When we listen, we present ourselves to the one to whom we will listen. We indicate our availability with eye contact or sitting closer. Technology, the shift from face-to-face to the virtual realm, has made presenting ourselves as good listeners more difficult. To present ourselves as available to hear someone when we are on a phone or video call is challenging. Even more challenging might be how to be generous with these forms of media. “Is it a good time to talk?” is a question I often hear from a friend who calls after a long absence to catch up. A simple “yes” might confirm my availability, but it doesn’t always confirm my capacity for listening. For that, I rely on further confirmation, the “mmm” and “huhs” that holds my presence for them, as my eyes are either hidden from view or flattened by a screen.
Which brings me to an important, personal rule about good listening. Never pretend. Never present what you cannot minimally commit to. It is better to tell a loved one that another time is better for listening and choose the time than it is to commit now and give your attention by half. Such a halving (or quartering, or worse) reveals an impoverished listener and is ungenerous, even if it seems generous relative to what the listener who is beset by many other responsibilities believes she can offer. One experience of being listened to is far more precious than a thousand instances of competing for someone’s hard sought-after or over-promised attention.
The feeling of having been listened to is often commensurate with the perception of the listener’s generosity. When we present the gift of ourselves as available to receive something important, we reflect the capacity necessary to recognize whatever might emerge, especially feelings of pain, anger, and loneliness. Good listening does not present a vacuum or echo chambers like the ones created deliberately in the offices of poorly trained therapists. Good listening bespeaks of a plentitude where every emergent articulation of one’s experience has its proper place. Disappointment? There’s a space for that. Anger? There’s a space for that too. Before we can understand exactly what the disappointment or anger is, a space is created by the presented capacity of the listener. Before understanding, we have the grounds for understanding in a shared space. Those grounds must be ample, providing more space than might be imagined by the one who needs listening to.
In my next post, I will concentrate on two more virtues of good listening: curiosity and courage.