Listening is an act of humility

In 1973, a man named John Francis began what would become a 17 year vow of silence.

A short while before that, in 1971, he started walking everywhere after another oil spill in San Francisco. As you can imagine, walking absolutely everywhere (with no exceptions. Even to the hospital!) would be difficult and it happened to draw a lot of attention. People would start talking to him about his efforts to walk everywhere and some would ridicule him for it.

He found that he got into a lot of arguments.

What would happen if he just listened? And so, the vow of silence began.

During a conversation, committing to silence, means you can’t talk. Now, that seems terribly obvious but it has interesting implications. Not being able to respond to the other person whenever you want means there’s no point in always thinking of a rebuttal or looking for a similar experience to add. You can turn your attention to just listening.

Viewing listening as an act of humility means one thing. We take a lower opinion of our personal view and focus more on the other person. This is different from simply hearing the other person talk.

It allows us to better understand that there are other points of view and interesting stories to be heard if we leave our own input to the back of our minds. When other people become the priority in the conversation, we get to experience what they’re saying with greater intensity. This is in direct contrast to continuously thinking about what we want to say and when to say it without sounding rude and generally paying much less attention. Therefore we become much more prone to interrupting people because we don’t want to forget what we’ve said. As you’ve probably noticed, being interrupted isn’t a pleasant feeling. Why do it to others? If it keeps on happening, conversations aren’t enjoyable because the impression given is that you don’t actually care about what they’re saying.

It’s much easier to assume the position of humility when the other person is saying something you agree with or something very interesting. As John Francis said … In those situations, you don’t need to think about what you’re going to say next because they’ve already said the things you want to say or you actively don’t want them to stop talking because you’re enjoying them so much. Just think back to a time when someone told you a good story or you watched a funny stand-up set.

We should assume this position of humility for more conversations.

It leads to a greater appreciation of others and we’ll be able to give better responses. It’ll be easier to understand if someone wants to vent or desires a solution and stories become more engaging.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. More often than not, if we feel we have something to add, we want to. If the other person has a tendency to ramble. However, good listening is seen as a skill and therefore something we can improve at. A good starting point is to be aware of every time you have the urge to interrupt with phrases like

  • “I know what you’re talking about. I did [insert semi-relevant experience]…”
  • “Why did you do that? That’s [silly/unexpected/etc]…”

Usually, you’re just making a genuine effort to show you’ve had a similar experience or want to offer help in some way. Or want to move the conversation forward. However, we can do that after they’ve finished talking. That way we won’t have to talk over one another all the time!

Seeing listening as an act of humility makes this slightly easier to do. When we listen, our own view becomes less important and we give that privilege to others. Taking a brief walk in their shoes helps us understand why it’s valuable. If you were talking, you’d appreciate the other person’s full attention too.

I’ll end with a quote from John Francis himself. On what he’s realised from his vow of silence:

“when I realized that I hadn’t been listening, it was as if I had locked away half of my life. I just hadn’t been living half of my life.”

What do you think of listening as an act of humility? Would you ever take an extended vow of silence?

***

If you want to read more, here are a few helpful links:

An interview with John Francis

What does it mean to listen?

Thanks for reading :)

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