Put Down Your Newspaper: An essay on listening

“Put down your newspaper.” 

This is the clever code my friend and her husband have been using as a notification to tune in to one another. It’s a great phrase even when – especially when – there’s no newspaper around. It’s code for: “This is important, so listen.”

All parents know what it’s like to say something and know that no one heard you, even when you’re speaking to a full room. Even when you get nods and murmurs in response.  

When I was growing up, we used to call it the Mom Frequency. The ability to tune in is apparently granted automatically to all children when they reach a certain age. At the Mom Frequency, anything kids don’t want to hear is rendered completely inaudible. 

Conveniently, the use of this frequency often extends into adulthood, but it’s not innate. 

Last weekend, we took our 18-month-old daughter to her first movie, Fantasia 2000. For 74 minutes, her world was dark but for the giant flashing images. Her world was quiet but for the stream of violin, cello, and the occasional clarinet aimed directly at her little world. 

The music enveloped all 25 pounds of her. At each crescendo, her muscles tensed and she sat upright. She listened with her entire being, body and soul.

She listens to music the way we should listen to one another...with a connection as powerful and as complete as a tightrope - not something we do as we fold the laundry, make PB&Js, and run the vacuum. 

Listening ranks as one of the most important things we can do to nurture our relationships. It fulfills a universal and basic human longing. It strengthens the bond among parents, friends, children, and lovers. 

When someone listens, really listens, we know it. Our feelings are validated. All at once, we feel needed and appreciated and understood.

As we age, our ability to listen seems to ebb as the number of distractions flow. There are the external distractions: the ambient noise. And there are the internal distractions: our own scattered thoughts and ideas chewing away at the back of our minds. The pressure to formulate some kind of response. The mistaken notion that the person speaking is asking for advice.

Have you ever participated in one such playgroup conversation? One mom proudly announces that her child said his first word. “Charlie said ‘cheese!’” she bursts. 

“Well, Becky says ‘please.’”

“Well, Sammy says ‘please pass the cheese.’”

And on it goes, with the first mother feeling a bit deflated, and the other moms moving on to one-upping each other on the length of their child’s hair or their child’s position on the height chart, or the size of their child’s shoes. 

Mothers of toddlers provide an especially fascinating study into the art of listening. During the course of conversation, all such mothers must come and go to retrieve their wee ones from the big-girl slide or to break up two toddlers engaged in a monosyllabic screeching match over the rights to a Nerf ball. 

When we return together, almost invariably, a whole new conversation begins. Most of the time, the only person aware of the shift was the person who was speaking last. Once again, this mom is left feeling a bit deflated and the rest of the group is off to other things. 

I started observing these dynamics only since this topic popped up on my editorial calendar. In doing so, I made one observation that was particularly difficult to swallow: I am among the worst offenders in the group. 

Like many of us, I don’t find the art of conversation terribly easy. I think many of us feel the pressure to respond, so conversations become hard work. How much more nurturing it is to sit back and listen, not panicking that we’re going to lose a turn to talk.

How much more nurturing it is to settle in to the silence. Among friends adept at listening, this pause is not awkward but proof that those across the table are absorbing what was said.

How much more nurturing it is to listen than to continually offer advice or prove how you emerged from a similar situation yourself. 

How much more nurturing it is to put down your newspaper.