J. Scott Applewhite, AP
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., far right, joined by, from left, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, questions Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz and FBI Director Christopher Wray during a hearing to examine Horowitz's report of the FBI's Clinton email probe, on Capitol Hill, Monday, June 18, 2018 in Washington.

Now that President Donald Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill the vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, the focus will shift to the upcoming Senate hearings. The hearings are the opportunity for senators to question the nominee on his qualifications, opinions and writings. But will they? Sadly, most senators will use their allotment of time to pontificate, bloviate and hope they get some sound bites for cable TV news or to feature on their own social media channels. For a hearing to be a "hearing," it must include a great deal of listening, which actually requires that the questioner stop talking.

Hearing and listening go hand in hand. Most so-called hearings in Congress these days have almost no hearing or listening at all. Prepared speeches by lawmakers dominate the meetings to the point that the person who is “testifying” before the committee testifies of little, says less and reveals almost nothing, which defeats the very purpose of the hearing.

Congress, along with most of the rest of us, could use a refresher in lessons for listening.

Retired therapist Sue Patton Thoele said, “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”

Rex Lee, who served as solicitor general under Ronald Reagan and as president of Brigham Young University, was an extraordinary listener. In his many leadership roles, particularly in making arguments before the Supreme Court, Lee was often designated to be the person making the case, telling the story and driving the point home. Yet almost every significant picture ever taken of Lee, and the statue created in his honor, portray him intently listening. That is a lesson in listening worth noting.

Communication today has been reduced to a process of two people engaged in self-serving monologues, where one person waits for the other to finish talking so he or she can begin talking again. Master communicators, on the other hand, believe that showing respect to another person in the form of active listening is the greatest communication skill of all.

The late Earl Nightingale, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, called active listening the “I’ll make them glad they talked with me” attitude. This is an attitude that is totally service-oriented, not self-oriented. When our primary concern is for the other person, and not ourselves, everything changes. When we have the interest of the other person at heart, not just our own, we listen, and the other person can sense it in significant ways. The people who have the most influence and impact on our lives are usually the people who are so genuinely and authentically interested in us that they truly listen.

Electronic devices of all kinds are inhibitors to listening and hearing. Every beep, buzz, vibration and ring takes us out of being present listeners and turns us into distracted participants instead of active players in any conversation.

During my time as an international business consultant, I regularly gave corporate executives a seven-day listening challenge. It was very straightforward. For one week, I asked them to take notes and assess their listening habits based on four simple levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring — This isn’t really listening at all. Many of us do it rather well. And it is best described as "the lights are on but no one is home" — you are definitely not listening.
  2. Selective — This is where you hear only what you want to hear and block out the rest. It's often used by spouses during good movies or sporting events.
  3. Reflective — This is the level where you can actually repeat back, or paraphrase back, what the other person told you, which is very important for building trust. It sends the message that you care, you're interested and you are paying attention.
  4. Empathic — Based on the word empathy. This is where you go beyond hearing just words and phrases and you start listening for meaning and intent.

I am going to retake this challenge and hope that members of Congress and people everywhere join me.

20 comments on this story

An honest self-assessment will reveal interesting patterns in our listening. For some people in our lives, the moment we see them coming, we immediately go into the ignore mode! With others we are more selective, or even empathic. The important thing is to make sure we are listening on purpose, by choice.

Listening is, unfortunately, becoming a lost art — it is time to re-enthrone listening as a quality worth developing. Effective, powerful listening is a gateway to success in so many areas.

During the important assessment of Kavanaugh as a potential Supreme Court nominee, the Senate should restore “hearings” to an actual exercise in good question-asking followed by active listening. We all should convene “hearings” and “listenings” with the people who matter most in our lives.