Last week, my eighty-year-old mother returned from an errand to find a message on her answering machine. The message was from a representative of the Texas Rangers. In the course of investigating a bank fraud case, the caller said, the Rangers had discovered that my mother’s bank accounts had been compromised. The caller left a number and instructed my mother to call immediately, whereupon she would be given more information about the case and guidance about how to ensure the safety of her accounts.
My mother listened to this message with alarm. She called the number. The man who answered her call told her she must close her accounts without delay and use the money to buy $1000 Walmart gift cards. A Ranger would come to her house the following day and would show her how to reinvest her money.
Given this true-life scenario, consider Steven R. Covey’s statement, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.”
Now consider some key truths about my mother: She is widowed and lives alone. She is timid. Her only income is her monthly Social Security check, which barely covers her expenses. She is in the habit – the lifelong, deeply engrained habit – of listening to other voices with the intent to understand. But – this is important – only to some other voices. Not to all other voices.
When I was thirteen and my sister was sixteen, my father – a high school teacher – was reprimanded by the school board for kissing a female student, a charge he vehemently denied. He said to my mother, “It’s my word against hers. Who are you gonna listen to?”
Who was Mom gonna listen to? The teenage girl or the adult man? If either of her teenage daughters spoke, Mom listened with the intent to reply. But when Dad spoke, Mom listened with the intent to understand. She did not do this because my father needed her understanding more than her children did, but because she had learned long ago, as a female child in a patriarchal culture and family, that she had better pay attention to adult males – or else. The tools used to teach her this lesson were: shame, guilt, and the threat of violence.
So Mom listened to Dad. Whether or not she deeply understood him does not negate the fact that she intended to understand him. She accepted his version of the truth. If she had doubts, she didn’t act on them. Maybe her doubts spoke in a voice she was not in the habit of heeding.
A year later, my parents split up. My sister was a high school junior at the time. When Mom moved out, my sister stayed behind with Dad so she could graduate without changing districts. Dad soon began molesting her.
I have since wondered if my mother sensed, when she left, any looming danger to my sister; whether she heard a voice – an inner voice – saying, “Wait. This is not a safe place to leave your daughter.”
Recently, I asked Mom about this. Did she know, back then, what my father was capable of? “Not really,” she replied. “Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.”
Back in the present, while being given financial advice by a representative of the Texas Rangers, it dawned on Mom that she was being scammed. In that moment, it seems, she stopped listening to the voice on the phone and started listening – just for a moment – to another voice. It was, it must have been, her own voice. She hung up.
She then fled her own home in fear. She appeared on my doorstep. She said, “I’m staying with you for a few days.”
I listened to her with the intent to reply. “You can stay for one night,” I said.
Mom, likewise, listened with the intent to reply. “No,” she said, “I’m staying with you for three or four days.”
I didn’t want to hear that. I changed the subject.
“Have you reported the scam to the police?” I asked.
Mom said no. She said she was afraid to talk to them.
“Afraid to talk to the police?” I asked, incredulous. She said yes.
I sighed. I opened my laptop and Googled Texas Rangers Scam. I learned that scammers – who are endlessly inventive folk – employ at least two different stories to convince their victims to buy $1000 Walmart gift cards: the “Texas Rangers/Bank Fraud” story and the “Grandchild in Prison/Needs Bail Money” story. These scammers don’t really show up at a victim’s home. Instead, they wait for their victim to call back. If and when they do, the scammers request the codes off the gift cards, continuing with their original story of “reinvesting” the funds. Or, you know, bailing out the grandchild. One concerned grandmother gave scammers $4500 in gift card codes before saying she was out of money and would they bring her grandson home now?
I relayed this information to my mother. “Mom,” I said, “these people won’t actually show up at your house.”
“I don’t care,” Mom said. “I’m afraid to go home.”
I then said some things that she did not intend to understand and she said some things that I did not intend to understand and since neither of us heard the other, I can’t be trusted to accurately tell you what we said.
Back to Steven R. Covey and his views about listening. Is Mr. Covey right, wrong, or other? Let’s break it down:
- Mr. Covey is right: It is true – and truly unfortunate – that we humans are often poor listeners. We fail to listen to each other with generosity and attention, or listen with half an ear while formulating our own response at the same time. As my mother and I fail to listen to each other wholeheartedly, we miss opportunities for better communication, understanding, and compassion.
- Mr. Covey is right, but only if we accept his assumption. He assumes a context of equality between speaker and listener; a fair playing field with no power differential. People like my mother – conditioned by fear and a lifelong acceptance of their own disempowerment – believe it is incumbent upon them to listen to and understand a more powerful speaker. They may believe it dangerous to act otherwise. Women, it often appears, do not listen to men at their peril. Or, to remove gender from the argument, the powerless do not listen to the powerful at their peril.
- By making his assumption, Mr. Covey is missing a crucial point. While she often listen to others with the intent to understand, fear and uncertainty impair my mother’s actual understanding. She hears what the speaker intends for her to hear and believes what the speaker says, even if the speaker is not trustworthy. Her understanding – partial at best – often stops there. Her understanding is greatly improved, however, when she heeds her own voice, when it says, for example, “Wait a minute, this Texas Ranger thing doesn’t sound right.” Her understanding is diminished when she fails to heed the same inner voice when it says, for example, “Wait a minute. Your daughter isn’t safe.”
My mother’s own voice needs her generous, loving attention. My voice likewise needs my loving attention and your voice needs your loving attention. The choice to listen to our own voices requires some trust on our parts, some faith that our voices have something necessary to say; not to others, but to ourselves. It requires that we adopt an attitude of generous and kindly regard for ourselves, especially if we have come to believe our voices are less important than other voices. This is not a skill most of us are taught as children, but it is well worth cultivating. The ability to heed your own voice amidst a cacophony of outer voices is the foundation of real understanding and good judgment.
And here we can return to Mr. Covey, for the two kinds of listening – to inner and outer voices – are directly related. The degree to which we listen to our own voices – the voices that speak quietly in private moments but loudly when necessary; that speak to us through thought, intuition, emotion, and through our bodies – is the degree to which we are then capable of listening to others with compassion and real understanding. Conversely, our lack of attention to our own inner experience and wisdom is the very reason we are so eager to override others with our replies: because we need so badly to be heard.