“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” — Larry King
“Listen, heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth” Deuteronomy 32:1.
Moses concludes his declarations to the Israelites on the last day of his life with a song. Songs are literary tools more likely to remain with the listener and their descendants than a speech with declarative sentences. For this reason, God commissioned Moses to compose the song. Moses needed to equip the people with the spiritual tools to survive as a nation, providing them with the medium of song to internalize its messages for the long term. Surprisingly, the song is replete with admonitions. However, among the key messages of the song is that when (not if) the Israelite nation is in distress, it will be because they abandoned God—and not vice versa––thus, critically, there is the consolation that God will never desert them.
Our focus is the song’s preamble. As Moses is aware that he will no longer be part of the Israelites’ lives in the Promised Land, he calls upon “witnesses” that can be counted on to archive these messages permanently: the heavens and the earth. He addresses them to activate two different auditory mechanisms: hearing and listening. Hearing indicates the basic technical reception of auditory stimuli. Listening implies lending an ear, making an effort to hear things that may not have been heard without that effort. Both aspects are essential for understanding the message.
Thus, just as people can be attentive at various levels (e.g., noticing, hearing, listening, attending, focusing, concentrating, understanding, and being stimulated), so can the heavens and earth. The song, then, may be understood superficially (hearing) by the current generation, who may be more focused on the practical challenges of entering and settling the Promised Land. However, in the future, once settled and recalling the song, they will understand it more profoundly (by listening), attending carefully to the messages—noting what was said and what was not said––and applying it to their daily lives.
The Torah has already clued us into the challenge of listening and the cost of not listening. Two critical examples come to mind. Joseph’s brothers, in their confrontation with Joseph before he revealed his identity, were bickering about how they found themselves in such a precarious predicament, even seeing it as punishment for their harsh treatment of Joseph in his youth: “We are guilty, guilty because of what we did to our brother. We saw his suffering when he pleaded with us, but we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.”
Listening is an underrated communication skill. It seems so passive and different from what one would anticipate from a strong leader. Leaders make policy and discharge orders, right? Listening implies not knowing all there is to know and being open to new, potentially enriching information. In many conversations and discussions, conversation partners commonly remain at the hearing level, neglecting to upgrade to the listening level. We may attend enough to our conversation partner to spot a pause in their speech so that we can quickly fill the gap by injecting our piece of wisdom, a “pearl” that we may have been carefully formulating in our head while our partner was speaking. To assuage our guilt in this matter, keep in mind that our conversation partner may have been doing the same thing, thus facilitating an encounter consisting of alternating monologues rather than a dialogue. Thus, in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey observed, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
In his classic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray highlights gender-determined communication gaps: Men listen for just enough information to spot problems or challenges that need fixing. In contrast, women prioritize feelings and divulge some information, with the former more critical for her. This difference in communication goals leads mixed-gender communication partners to listen for different things, with conflict not far behind, even in today’s blurred gender boundaries.
Most of us recognize the value of empathy. We appreciate it when our conversation partner appears to understand what we are feeling (whether glee, disappointment, disillusionment, displeasure, grief, frustration, or defeat), and they strive to express accurate empathy through words and nonverbal behavior. If we respond as soon as we think we know what the other person is feeling, we may be off the mark—let the person finish! After making an empathic statement, there is a difference between hearing your partner say, “No, that’s not it” and “That’s it, exactly!” Simon Senek, discussing the art of listening, distinguishes between your conversation partner knowing that you are listening and feeling that they are being listened to..
I recall supervising employment counselors (in this example, males) who were dumbfounded after their clients thanked them profusely for their help: “I didn’t do anything for them; I had no job to offer them; all I did was listen!” I pointed out that, sadly, they may have been the only person that day prepared to listen to their personal and financial distress at being unemployed. Their family members may have been attuned only to whether they had received a job offer and may have lost their patience to hear their “grumbling.” Thus, the client had no opportunity to share deep concerns that may keep them awake at night, such as having to burden their family, taking responsibility for their misfortune, and contemplating the future.
In another incident with my supervisees, they often expressed pride in their placement skills. They knew the job market so well and how their client carried themselves that when a job opportunity came up, they recognized immediately what job would best fit them. They may even have been on the mark in their conjecture; however, some placement clerks had to be convinced to hold off until the client had finished sharing their needs and preferences before advising them of their recommendation. I tried to convince them that their client would not likely be open to suggestions, no matter how appropriate, until they expressed their concerns and aspirations. They may hear the clerk’s sage advice, but only after they conclude their story will they begin to listen to it.
Cocktail party communication skills. When communicating at work, whether with clients or colleagues, you might consider cocktail party communication skills. Distractions can easily grab your attention and dilute the quality of the conversation. To focus on your conversation partner, cocktail party-goers actively shut out potential distractions, such as the din around them. Other times, you may excuse yourself to respond to a phone call, email, or door-knocking to allow full engagement with your conversation partner when you are done. Sometimes, “all-or-nothing” is the right tactic, and it may be better to reschedule.
Nonverbal behavior. As you focus on your conversation partner, try to notice your and their nonverbal behavior, such as eye contact, pace of speech, intonation, and hand gestures. We now know that when encountering a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal behaviors (e.g., the person may speak about their sale laconically, but their eyes broadcast a different story––an exciting, thrilling development), the nonverbal behavior provides the more accurate information.
Try this: Two more tips: 1) Don’t interrupt your conversation partner. Interruptions could unsettle their train of thought and confuse their message. This is particularly critical for those with attention deficit syndrome. 2) Empathize with your partner, briefly reflecting feelings (“I see our last meeting really got you down”) and make sure you understand the facts (“Do you mean they contacted your client without consulting you”?).
For more Torah-career insights, visit The Bible at Work: Career Coaching in the Five Books of Moses
. Deuteronomy 31:19, 22.  Genesis 42:21.  Exodus 5:9.  Covey, S. (1989), The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Free Press.  Gray, J. (1992). Men are from Mars, women are from Venus The classic guide to understanding the opposite sex. HarperCollins.