Column: Now hear this, now hear this

by Father Mark Goldasich

“Help!”

That’s one word guaranteed to get someone’s attention.

And it certainly worked on the kindergarten teacher who saw a little boy struggling to put on his boots before heading home on a snowy afternoon.

She went over to the boy to offer assistance. Although he was pulling and the teacher was pushing, the boots didn’t seem to want to go on. Finally, after working up quite a sweat, they were successful.

Suddenly, though, the kid said, “Teacher, look! They’re on the wrong feet!” Sure enough, he was right.

Pulling the boots off was no easier, but the teacher kept at it. She managed to keep her cool as she and the boy worked to get the boots on the right feet this time.

Just as the teacher sighed with relief, the little boy announced, “These aren’t my boots!”

Although she wanted to scream, she instead took a deep breath and struggled with the boots. Once they were off, the kid announced, “They’re my brother’s boots, but Mom made me wear them anyway!”

By now, the teacher didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. To her credit, she mustered up patience as she wrestled the boots, yet one more time, onto the boy’s feet.

Pleased that her impossible mission had finally succeeded, she asked the little boy, “OK, now where are your mittens?”

“Oh, I stuffed them in the toes of my boots,” said the boy . . . as the poor teacher fainted.

I get a kick out of this story! How many times in life do we imitate that teacher: Rush in to “fix” a problem, without taking sufficient time to listen to the situation. That’s a sure formula for disaster.

April is designated Listening Awareness Month. In our increasingly busy, noisy and distracting world, we truly do need a reminder to develop the skill of listening.

It’s estimated that most people listen at a measly 25-percent efficiency rate. That doesn’t surprise me.

We’re a society of talkers. On any given day, scores of “call in” shows and Web sites allow people to vent on every subject imaginable, usually with great indignation. It seems that everyone has an opinion on everything . . . and we’re not shy about sharing our thoughts every chance we get.

What a blessed respite listening can be! It’s a skill, though, that’s rapidly becoming extinct. Happily, groups like the International Listening Association are working hard to keep listening alive and well.

On its Web site is an article from 1957 entitled, “Listening Is a 10 Part Skill.” Written by Dr. Ralph G. Nichols, then head of the department of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota Institute of Agriculture in St. Paul, its points are as valid today — even more so, perhaps — as they were over 50 years ago.

Nichols reminds us that listening is a skill; it’s not something that comes naturally. Part of the problem is that most people speak at a rate of about 125 words a minute. We think, however, at about four times that rate. That’s why it’s so easy to “drift off,” to become distracted, while others are speaking. To remedy this, Nichols suggests focusing not only on a speaker’s words, but how she’s speaking — her tone, volume, facial expressions and gestures all convey ideas that we could miss if we’re not paying attention.

Happily, with practice we can become better listeners. But where can we find the time? Well, why not start by eliminating a huge distraction: the TV. April 21-28 just happens to be TV Turnoff Week. The quiet time gleaned from an unplugged television can be used to listen to an author by reading a good book or to our family members by sharing a meal, taking a walk together, or playing a board game.

Spiritually, we can strive to listen more to God in prayer (rather than doing all of the talking). At Mass, we might pay closer attention to the prayers, the readings and the homily, and maybe even discuss what was heard there on the way home from Mass.

Personally, I intend to mark Listening Awareness Month by wrestling with a bad habit: interrupting people when they speak. I’m going to resurrect a little gesture I learned back in kindergarten. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with boots.

Way back then, our teacher, Sister Proxeda, had us put our index finger to our lips when we were supposed to be quiet, as a physical reminder to listen.

By doing that gesture more often in these next two weeks, I’m sure I’ll be amazed at all that I hear . . . and learn.

 

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