Editor’s Note: This post was part of the Lightswitch project at KSJD, kindly motivated by Tom Yoder and edited by Penny Holiday.
I owe a career in journalism to my mother. So that I could visit her mother, she put me – a strawberry blonde 10-year old – on a plane bound for Cleveland from our home in Maine. She must have been concerned about ‘stranger danger’ because at the gate she told me:
If you get to talking with other passengers, make sure you ask more questions than you answer. Play a game of seeing how much you can learn about them and how little they find out about you.
And so I did. It was fun.
Making a living of asking questions has been an amazing job. I started as a sports reporter and the questions were relatively simple:
Why zone defense and not man-to-man?
How did it feel to wrestle competitively against your brother?
Over the years, I learned that the more you pay attention, the better job you can do as a reporter. If you can notice a voice hesitancy or a change in body language, you can get better insight to your interviewees’ situation or point of view. It’s not just about listening to words.
Along the way, I heard the quote: “Listening is the most powerful thing you can do…” This is an idea that has guided me in my career and in my life.
After covering sports, business, travel, and investigative projects, I now cover horse-related topics almost exclusively. I’m interested in everything from brain science to stockmanship. I’m most intrigued by the wordless connections made between horse and rider. It’s fascinating stuff. It evolves with every interaction. Whether you are on the ground or in the saddle, the horse is always, always considering what you are telling or asking with your body, your voice, and your mind. Horse folks know that you can talk and listen a hundred yards away. A horse will feel a tiny fly on her flank and she will hear your breath and feel your brace. Becoming more and more sensitive to the communication between horse and rider is, I believe, what distinguishes fine riders from those just gettin’ stuff done.
My path with horses has me reevaluating what it means to be a good listener. Since they don’t exactly talk, listening is about watching their movement, their breathing, the softness of their eyes, the tightness of their neck and shoulders. Listening has become a mesh of knowledge and empathy, thoughtfulness and compassion, of striving to be free of ego and agenda. It’s so dang challenging to interact clearly with horses But also, for introverts like myself, it can also be more fun and rewarding than interacting with my fellow humans.
A friend sent me a social styles worksheet the other day. It categorized people into four categories: analytical, expressive, amiable, and driven. I landed squarely among the drivers. Drivers, it said, should work on better listening.
What? How could someone who’s made a career of listening need to be a better listener?
The assessment has led me to reconsider yet again what it means when you say Listening is the Most Powerful Thing You Can Do.
To get better at listening is simple, but not easy. And I suppose it’s no surprise that I’ve been connecting it to horsemanship.
Can I approach a situation, animal or human, without intent or judgment?
Can my encounters be without goals or ulterior motives?
Can I do better at being in the moment?
Sometimes I can. Sometimes, facing deadlines, distractions, and age-old, hard-wired behaviors, it’s really hard to listen well, especially when talking tends to be more rewarded today than being quiet.
I used to think listening was a favor or courtesy you did for other people and something you lobbed back and forth, like a game of Ping Pong. But I’m coming to understand that listening is more than just ears wide open. It’s a practice that opens up body and mind. Sure, it’s a gift for others; but it also has the rich returns of engagement where one can become a part of something greater, deeper, and better.