In 2010, I was a member of a local Toastmasters’ club. Toastmasters International is a group that emphasizes leadership through developing speech-making skills. The format is highly structured but inclusive enough to allow for short speeches on a variety of topics. When my work schedule changed, I left the club but remember it fondly and have considered returning. This journal entry made seven years ago was inspired by a Toastmasters meeting:
Tuesday, February 9, 2010–A Toastmasters member read a blurb last night about being a good listener. It presumed interrupting means you aren’t listening. I disagree. I frequently interrupt to clarify a point, to carry thoughts further, or to convert a monologue into a conversation. I listen with the intent to understand. It takes “listening” a step further, into the range of “hearing” the context.
If someone is misinformed, under-informed, or if they are over my head, boring, or otherwise wasting my time and theirs, I believe as a good listener, I have an obligation to set the communication on track.
Few people appreciate the give and take of conversation. If you finish sentences for someone, does that make you a bad listener? Maybe you’ve listened to that sentence so many times, you know it by heart.
A reader, by definition, is a listener, even though the listening is through eyes rather than ears. Anyone who watches TV is a listener, of sorts. Anyone who watches a movie, ditto. In the latter, the media provide the visual imagery that readers supply for themselves through imagination.
Since that time I’ve thought more about listening and its role in conversation. Our society seems built on passive listening. By “passive listening,” I refer to structured learning environments, such as classrooms and lecture halls. Churches follow a similar format, with attendees listening to sermons. Expression, such as singing or hymns or recitation of creeds, is by rote. Passive listening extends to radio, television, and movies. Cultural events, such as plays or concerts, depend on audiences that listen quietly to the performances. The internet has advanced communication by allowing for interactive exchanges through e-mail, FaceBook, Twitter, or blogging.
Pondering this led me to reflect on how the human brain is wired with respect to language. Most people, about 96 percent, have language ability concentrated in the left hemisphere. Here, the brain processes receptive language (listening) in a specific area called Wernicke’s area. Patients with Wernicke’s area strokes can speak fluently but do not understand what is being said, by themselves or others.
Broca’s area controls expressive language, or speaking. People with Broca’s area strokes can generally understand what is being said, but they have trouble formulating and verbalizing their own thoughts. This is not a problem of motor function. The muscles of speech, like in lips and tongue, are not affected by the stroke. Strangely, those with Broca’s aphasia (speech difficulty) can often sing, presumably because musical expression is located in the right hemisphere.
Writers and speakers make careers out of developing expressive language skills. They know the challenge of finding the right words to verbalize thoughts. They must arrange sentences and paragraphs coherently, and anticipate how others might perceive the words in that context. But writers and lecturers are not necessarily good listeners or good conversationalists.
Toastmasters is one group that offers opportunities to develop expressive language skills. At another level, improvisational comedy is potentially a way to develop the art of conversation. Improv’s primary rule is to move the action forward. A stated or implied “no” creates an impediment to this flow. In contrast, arguing is an example of how “no” blocks communication. A good conversationalist wants to hear the other’s point of view.
This led me to speculate about other opportunities in our society to develop conversational skills, a give-and-take in which all participating parties emerge invigorated and refreshed. How many people listen only to refute, rather than build on thoughts and take them further? How many agree in an argumentative tone of voice, such that they sound like they are disagreeing?
The art of conversation relies on equal participation from both receptive and expressive sides of the brain, the yin and yang of communication. Because the two speech areas of the brain are physically separated, I wonder if making a conscious effort to develop conversational dexterity will help connect the two modes of communication—listening and speaking—to benefit all brains equally.
Any thoughts on this?