Monday, August 22, 2011

The Quiet Listener

 Thirty years ago, I was a 20-something speechwriter for a large manufacturing company, and part of a three-person speechwriting team. One day, the vice president of our staff function called me to his office to talk about me writing speeches for his boss.

In the middle of our conversation, the CEO barged into the office and started screaming at the VP. Who didn’t say a word but quickly took up his pen to take notes as the CEO’s tirade continued. The CEO didn’t know me, even though I wrote speeches for him. He didn’t even glance at me. And I thought to myself, what if I had been a job candidate, or a reporter?

The screaming stopped; the CEO left. And then the VP resumed our conversation exactly where we had stopped, as if nothing had happened. I was so shook my hands were trembling.

That’s one kind of quiet listener – the executive who works for a screaming CEO. Luci Shaw, in Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit, writes about another kind, in the context of talking about poetry: “…poetry enriches; it forces us to take time, slow down, and reflect what might otherwise escape our notice. It helps us to view life metaphorically instead of in terms of mere fact or information. Poetry helps us to become whole-brain people, teaching us to be thoughtful and creative in many areas of our lives. Most books that Christians read don’t push them in this direction, where they can be quiet listeners. We’re often pushed by the books we read toward busy-ness, efficiency and self-ism. Poetry can counter that. It opens up the windows to the whole universe, takes our eyes off ourselves, and often helps us to focus on Creator and creation.”

Substitute the words “business people” for “Christians,” in that paragraph, and it would be just as true. If you want to see how the business world usually defines career success, you’re going to be hard put to find the words “quiet listener” as Shaw describes it. “Listening skills” are often considered critically important for managing people, but they tend to be narrowly defined, as in understanding what a subordinate is concerned about or how to help a team function better. It’s about efficiency and effectiveness.

Business has never been known for promoting quiet people, no matter how good they are. No, we want hard-driving, results-oriented, shareowner-value focused A-type personalities who can “get the job done.”

What Shaw is describing is on a different plane altogether. A quiet listener thinks with both sides of his or her brain, in an integrated, big-picture kind of way. But in management reviews, they’re going to be overlooked or considered “not aggressive enough.”

Sometimes these quiet listeners are the prophets, the ones (to quote Shaw quoting Flannery O’Connor) who not only see clearly but also see what’s distant and often hidden. And if quiet listeners are at a career disadvantage in business, you can imagine what can happen to prophets, especially when they’re right.

Quiet listeners and prophets are needed in the business world. Somehow we have to get over this combined disdain and fear we have of them (and the fear is the fear that they may be right). Otherwise, the workplace can become a very nasty, toxic kind of place.

This is the last of our High calling discussions of Luci Shaw’s Breath for the Bones. I started this discussion weeks ago making the claim that what she says is as applicable to business as it is to art and writing and music. Now that  I’ve finished the book, I’m more convinced than ever. Instead of Who Moved My Cheese? or The 7-Minute Manager, we might do much better with Breath for the Bones.

To see more posts on the last two chapters of the book, “The Shadow Side of Creativity” and “Tracing the Creative Process of Poets and Poems,” please visit The High Calling.


Louise Gallagher said...

And you've convinced me to read it too!

Laura said...

I think you've proven your point quiet well with this series, Glynn! And I love that photo of Luci. I found it a neat parallel that she drew between poets and prophets. And now I'm thinking of business people as prophets...Scary?

Thanks for accompanying me on yet another really cool book journey. I'm always glad to have you along.

Michael Dodaro said...

I've had this book on order since the discussion at High Calling began, and it will get here now that most of you are finished talking about it. Everything I've read in the discussion is interesting. I think I have met Luci Shaw at an arts event at a local church. She published a friend of mine whose book on Hopkins I reviewed, years ago now. This post might be subtitled Blessed are the meek for they shall feel everybody's pain and then write about it.

SimplyDarlene said...

I've enjoyed this series as a spectator, since I didn't read the book myself.

Mister Glynn, I'm wondering about a couple of things and thinking aloud here: did you write more speeches for the CEO who flew into the room on a tirade? How did his impression influence your future words?


Maureen said...

Yours and others' posts on this book have been well-written and thought-provoking. Glad I tagged along.

Glynn said...

Darlene - as it turned, I did write more speeches the that CEO. I continued to write them as I had before, and he continued to give them. But something had changed, mostly in how I thought about the speaker.

Cindee Snider Re said...

Another excellent post, Glynn! What an interesting corporate world would result from a sudden influx in "quiet listeners." I can't even imagine, and yet on the other hand, I absolutely can, for nothing is impossible with God!