Heres How I Learned to Be a Better Listener | Reader's Digest

Here’s How I Learned to Be a Better Listener

Forced by his doctor to stop talking, the author found a new way of hearing people thanks to his so-called silent treatment.

By James H. Burnett III from Boston Globe Magazine
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2014

phonographShout for Reader’s Digest

As a reporter, I talk to strangers for a living and love the challenge of getting them to open up. Yet here’s a confession: I’ve been married for eight happy years, but until six months ago, I could be the stereotypical inattentive husband.

It’s not that my wife and I never had pleasant conversations. But more often than I care to admit, I was just going through the motions, nodding when I was supposed to. I was the guy who’d defensively snap, “Of course I did!” when my wife would ask, “JB, did you even hear what I just said?”

In January, I began to lose my voice repeatedly. Doctors told me I needed surgery, or else my throat would be permanently damaged. Total silence would be required for the first few weeks of my recovery.

Two hours after the surgery, my eyes filled with tears as my two-year-old son stood in the recovery room looking puzzled because I wouldn’t answer his questions. I wanted to talk but couldn’t. Luckily, I’d recorded myself reading some of my son’s favorite books. That would come in handy the next couple of weeks.

But by the time I got home, I had settled into a Zen-like peace about my silence. Soon I noticed another “side effect”: As my wife talked to me to keep up my spirits, I wasn’t just hearing her; I was listening to her.

Over the next couple of weeks, I found myself not wanting to miss a word she said. I began to hear a sweetness in her voice that I hadn’t recalled since we were first dating. It had never left. I’d just stopped noticing. I found myself understanding her better on topics I’d previously dismissed as “things I just don’t get as a guy.”

I also realized my toddler wasn’t just chattering nonstop but that he often had surprisingly thoughtful things to say for his age.

Even while walking my dog in the woods near our home, I began hearing pleasant patterns in birdsongs. The rustling leaves sounded crisper to me. Before my surgery, I’d have spent those walks on my phone.

I started whispering for a few minutes a day two and a half weeks after my surgery. A week later, I was in a voice therapist’s office learning to craft sound with minimal strain. After several months, my therapist had me singing old standards to her piano accompaniment. I was fully recovered.

Conversation in our house is better these days, but not because I’m talking more. I’m just listening better and becoming less and less surprised that I like what I hear.

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