Developing the Skill of Really Listening

Following up on Robert Caro at Work: “Come on Buzz, What Did You See?”, Barnard Law Collier adds some wisdom about the virtues of really listening.

To ask questions that elicit glints and glimmers of information, and perhaps even bursts of enlightenment, is a difficult art. Caro is a grand master and enjoys the kind of dogged persistence that the work requires.

Yet it pays not to neglect the art of listening.

This is the best story about how to listen that I’ve read in a long time:

Why are some very smart people so quiet?

By Richard Muller, author of Now–the Physics of Time (Norton 2016), Professor of Physics, UC Berkeley

I recall having lunch with Freeman Dyson. After lunch, I thought about it. Dyson had been very quiet, except when asking a few key penetrating questions. I had been flattered that he had been interested in my answers, and I had talked on and on and on.

Dyson seemed to have enjoyed the lunch, and he seemed eager to sit down with me at subsequent opportunities, but I realized, although he may have learned a few things from me, I had learned almost nothing from him. I almost felt tricked. In fact, he was just practicing something he had developed over the years: the skill of listening.

So I really did learn something important from that lunch when he was so quiet. I had lunch with him again the next day, and I managed to keep my mouth relatively shut, and to concentrate on asking probing questions. I was able to draw him out and learn a lot about his incisive views of physics, math, and the world.

The art of listening, listening deeply enough with concentration and with alertness, active listening that enables you to ask the relevant questions in real time (rather than to think of them afterwards), that kind of listening is a skill that I first observed when Freeman Dyson applied it to me.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer,  former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.

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