You can learn a lot by listening to what someone has to say, especially if you disagree with them. I’m not talking about learning only about what issue they might be talking about. I mean that you can learn a lot about the person you’re listening to, you learn to respect them as a person, and I think it goes the other way, too.
They learn to respect you.
My awakening about the benefits of listening came around 1993 when I returned a phone call to an irate constituent. I had been in the Montana House of Representatives for a few years and the Legislature was in session when I got a message to call so-and-so.
Now legislators, contrary to what you might expect, work long hours when in session, and when, after a 15-hour day the House adjourned at 10 at night, I dutifully went to the phone room to call the guy. I didn’t want to, but that’s what you did, you returned phone calls. I knew he was mad, what about is lost to history, or at least to my memory, and truthfully, in a day when answering machines were new technology, I hoped he was asleep and I could leave a message and have a clear conscience. No such luck.
The phone “room” seemed to have been made from a repurposed broom closet just off the House Floor. True to form, there was no chair to sit on, but there was always the floor. Except that if you sat on the floor the phone cord was not long enough to put the receiver to your ear. Sitting was important because I was beat. If you think sitting through 15 hours of people talking is easy, give it a try.
Anyway, he answered and started in on me, non-stop. I leaned against the wall and listened to him rant. Frequently, in between making noises that indicated that I was still there, I would drift off to sleep, sliding down the wall, and recover with a jerk. Twenty minutes he went on, twenty minutes of unalleviated anger, uninterrupted only because I was too tired to argue.
Suddenly, from his end of the conversation came…silence. Then a sigh. Then, “Thanks Jim, I feel much better now.” “Oh, sure, anytime. Glad to help. Thanks for getting in touch with your concerns. Sleep well.”
What the heck was that about. I wondered. Why had it ended on a nice note? Well, I had listened to him, or at least he thought I had. I hadn’t wanted to call him, didn’t agree with him, didn’t have the energy to argue with him, and so by default, I had listened.
And that was all he wanted.
And that’s all a lot of people want. You don’t have to like them, or agree with them, and most importantly they don’t want you to argue with them. Does it accomplish anything constructive? Maybe not in the sense of getting some action, but anytime somebody feels good because they have been listened to is a good thing. They have been heard.
And I would take that a little further. They have been treated politely, they have been treated respectfully, and they have been heard. It helped me to understand how to become friends with people I disagreed with. I often sat down and talked with people at their request who had, to me, outlandish concepts and beliefs that frankly, after an hour of explanation I still didn’t understand.
But I liked them afterwards, and that was just as important for me—more, actually—than understanding them.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.