How to Listen
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The questions I asked were based on a psychology technique called active listening, first developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s and common practice at crisis hotlines. It is fairly simply to use. If a stranger says that the end is near, respond with, “The end is near?” This can keep a conversation going indefinitely.
This parroting technique was essential during my time as an operator, when I was never allowed to give advice, just directions to housing shelters or community centers. Like a mirror, the questions helped callers reflect on their thoughts and come up with solutions on their own. Afterward, they would thank me.
To improve my social skills, my aunt gave me a worn copy of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I read it in one sitting.
According to Carnegie, successful conversationalists are genuinely interested in other people. They smile, remember names, encourage others to share their stories, and listen.
It takes practice, but it works. Using these techniques, there’s no such thing as a bad date, job interviews always lean in your favor, and friends regularly call to catch up.
In crisis or not, people want to feel like what they have to say is important. All it takes is eye contact, a grin, and a follow-up question.
My failure as a crisis worker made me question whether I should pursue genetic counseling. Eventually, I decided to become a journalist instead. I regularly fall back on the listening skills that I learned while volunteering for the hotline. It helps that most of my interviews are done over the phone.
Occasionally, I’ll notice the same hint of loneliness from my sources that I did from the “regulars.” While most people I call can’t wait to hang up on me, there are others—a shrimp farmer, an earth science teacher—who are hungry to talk. So I let them, sometimes for hours at a time.
These conversations make me think that we don’t listen to each other enough. It’s such a simple task, but too many people must rely on hotlines, therapists, or the occasional reporter to feel heard.
Before he died, the philosopher Paul Tillich remarked, “The first duty of love is to listen,” and I agree. But as Dale Carnegie advises, we must listen without criticism, condemnation, or complaint.
If the man with murderous impulses called today, I’d be ready for him. “I can kill her so easily,” he would taunt. “You can kill her so easily?” I’d ask, phone pressed against my ear. “Tell me more.”