A Rhino & A Saint

The northern white rhinoceros.

Extinct.

Or nearly so.

The Amur leopard too. And so is the art of listening.

There’s an Augustinian phrase, “audi alteram partem,”

It means “listen to the other side.”

In the current environment, how many people are listening to the other side?

I graduated from law school in 1988 and have practiced law for 28 of the last 32 years. I spent the other four years in the world of philanthropy. In each of these chosen professions, not listening practically ensures failure. Listening is an essential survival skill.

It is also a sign of respect.

If I don’t listen to my clients, or I didn’t listen to my donors, then deductively, I do not and did not respect their spoken words.

Clients want their lawyer to listen. Donors want their chosen non-profit to listen. But many don’t, and that’s a problem.

The Honorable Mark Bennett, a recently retired federal judge, wrote an article titled “Eight Traits of Great Trial Lawyers,” and “great listener” made the list.

As well it should.

Judge Bennett quoted Hemingway (“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”) and opined that “lawyers often fit Hemingway’s description of ‘most people’: they love to hear the sound of their self-perceived silver tongues, but they are notoriously poor listeners.” 

Listening requires that you be fully present and in the moment. 

Easier said than done.

I constantly remind young lawyers that when a client calls and asks whether they have time to talk, the lawyer must respond unequivocally “yes.” Even if the building is on fire. Even if a filing deadline looms. Even if the lawyer has one foot out the door. 

Easier said than done.

In the world of litigation, mediation is a fashionable, and effective, alternative dispute resolution tool. Those who feel aggrieved want to be heard, and mediation often provides that platform.

A great mediator is a great listener.

Why? Because people cannot be heard if no one is listening.

Simon & Garfunkel famously sang in The Boxer that “men hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest.”

More true today than when it was released 50 years ago.

I once visited an orthopedic surgeon for an issue with my right foot. Within three minutes, my visit was over. During those fleeting moments, the doctor brought up on his computer what he thought was my x-ray and “identified” the problem. I looked at the caption of the film and pointed out that he was showing me an x-ray of my wife’s right foot.

Fully present in the moment? No. Listening? I don’t think so.

Many politicians also fit Judge Bennett’s description of “most people.”

Upon my return from law school, I met with the mayor of the town where I spent my formative years to discuss serving on a municipal board or committee. After explaining that my family had moved to the community 16 years earlier, that I played in youth sport leagues, was once a summer town employee and graduated from the local high school, he looked at me, quizzically, and asked “so how long have you lived in town?”

Fully present in the moment? No. Listening? I don’t think so.

The only bipartisanship emanating from Washington is the agreement, across the aisle, to not listen to each other. Ditto for national media pundits. Lemon, Maddow and Cooper on one side, Hannity, Carlson and Ingraham on the other, metaphorically yelling at each other…but no one listening. 

In today’s world of social media hysteria, with incessant texting and tweeting and posting and Facebooking and instant-messaging and Snapchatting, is anyone really listening?

Desperate to be heard, people trip over themselves during the journey, opting for the ubiquitous ALL CAPS or multiple exclamation points when messaging. Shouting down their audience. Not inviting dialogue. Not inviting a meaningful exchange. Not inviting anything, really.

Kenny Chesney captured this phenomenon: “Yeah we scream, yeah we shout ’til we don”t have a voice. In the streets, in the crowds, it ain’t nothing but noise…just trying to be heard in all this noise.” 

Can we do better? Absolutely. Is this a seminal moment in our society? Absolutely. Can we avoid the same fate as the northern white rhino? Absolutely.

So how do we handle it? How do we rise above the cacophony of noise? At this moment, we desperately need less “self-perceived silver tongues,” less screaming and more listening. We need to be more fully present and in the moment. 

Why? The inscription on Ronald Reagan’s tombstone provides a hint: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” 

Listening validates the purpose and worth of the person speaking. 

Will you join me in following St. Augustine’s suggestion to “listen to the other side?”

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