A sign that says "WE HEAR YOU"

The longer I dwell in the world, the more I believe our greatest values, as human beings and as journalists, come through empathy and listening. Also, alas, our greatest failures. Because the longer I dwell in the world, the more I’m aware of the many times and ways I default to it’s-all-about-me-ism. My biggest lapses on the listening front are in my personal relationships, especially my primary ones. Whole songs have been written about around the theme of hurting the ones we love.

I like to think I’ve been better at it as a journalist, although far, far, far from perfect. But I do believe, and try to honor, these tenets:

  • Good journalism of any kind requires good writing.
  • Good writing requires thinking.
  • Good thinking requires good reporting.
  • Good reporting requires good listening.
  • Good listening requires all the senses.
  • Using all the senses requires being fully present in the moment for the other — the other person, the other perspective, the other place.

You could launch a near-identical list with any number of words besides journalism: teaching, friendship, partnership, leadership, parenting. A few other word tweaks would follow, but I’m they would all circle back to good listening.

Lessons all around us

Reminders are everywhere these days, especially as we become more aware of the power of what is now called “mindfulness.” I don’t mean formal therapy or meditation (I’ve never mastered the art of sitting still with myself), but rather, at core, a conscious and complete awareness in the moment of the situation and, especially, of the other person. Much of  what I read about mindfulness is about paying attention with sincere curiosity rather than judgment, with kindness rather than criticism. (Asterisk: Necessary exceptions granted, at times, to investigative or political reporters who confront lies, abuses and corruption on the public’s behalf.)

Two recent reminders came from writers I have long admired. Both were writing not through journalistic frames, but deeply personal ones. Both are dealing with significant health concerns, and learning a lot about what it means to listen, and be listened to.

Bedside manners

Columnist Chuck Haga of Grand Forks, North Dakota

Chuck Haga

Chuck Haga is retired from a long career as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis and Grand Forks, North Dakota. He now teaches classes at the University of North Dakota and writes a column for the Grand Forks Herald. His gentle essays have found their way to Storyboard at times, such as this piece about the connections he made while camping alone in the wilderness.

Lately, Haga has been writing about his new adventure: cancer. His tone is always honest but never whiny. As I follow along, I feel I’m watching someone peel away the layers we wear into the world, and get closer to the real stuff that lies at the heart. His most recent piece is straightforward: “You can hear a lot by listening.”

In it, Haga describes the people who stop by to visit him — how grateful he is for those who show up, fully present to him, and how painful it is to be with someone who is there physically, but not really there beyond that. From one such encounter:

Once recently, trying to explain something important, something that mattered to me, I saw words forming in this man’s eyes even before I had made a point. This was maybe the fourth straight sentence of mine he had halved or quartered or simply brushed aside. I wanted to reach across and slap him and say, “Don’t talk now.

Please. Listen. Hear me.


He confesses his own lapses in attention as a journalist, teacher, husband. And he inserts some wisdom we all should cross-stitched and hung in every room of our lives, and certainly in our newsrooms:

Don’t interrupt. Don’t feel you have to finish sentences for people. It’s not live TV, and it can be tough for people to find the right words, especially if they’re not used to people listening to them.

You need to be curious.

You might think you know everything about a person or a situation, but listen to what’s being said. Listen for what isn’t being said. Listen for what you didn’t know or expect.

Seeing what we look past

Reporter, essayist and professor Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni

I have followed Frank Bruni’s work in The New York Times for years. Now that he is a chair professor at Duke University (lucky students!), I subscribe to his newsletter. He still writes an occasional guest column for The Times, including one earlier this week that is adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Beauty of Dusk.” It’s about a rare type of stroke that attacked his vision, and may someday lead to blindness. For now, as he wrote:

A thin but permanent fog hangs over the right edge of my field of vision, awaiting a sun that never comes.

Much fear followed, of course. Until, over time, Bruni realized he was seeing in a new way:

Bit by bit, the people around me came into sharper focus, by which I mean that their fears, struggles and triumphs did.

What comes into focus for Bruni are deeper and truer stories about people he meets or even thought he knew. He captures those stories in quick, pointed summaries that he calls sandwich boards. You could also think of them as tweets or headlines or those six-word story forms often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, according to the legend, started with a piece about never-worn baby shoes. Some of the things on Bruni’s sandwich boards:

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.”
“Plane crash, prosthetic leg, dead 8-year-old son.”

And on his own board:

“Eyesight compromised, could go blind.”

Like Haga, Bruni connects the dots to journalism. He confesses to his insecurity every time he has to interview someone, and how he waits one minute, two, three, before he dials the phone:

I’ll tell you a secret about my journalism career, one that hints at the self-doubt and timidity that has also colored the rest of my life: Before I pick up the phone to call someone I’m about to interview, I have to steady myself. I have to take a few breaths. I’m afraid that I’ll ask the wrong questions or at least won’t ask the right ones. Or that I’ll ask them in a fumbling, embarrassing fashion.

That may not be something most of us would assume about someone of Bruni’s status in the profession. But there it is, letting us see him more fully — and perhaps understand how much we flawed humans are alike.

No spoiler here about how he ends his column. But I’ve tucked both his and Haga’s wisdoms in my teaching file. Take a read — and a listen.

Further Reading