The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

AS I WAS SAYING……..

listening

“Can we talk?” – that phrase so famously and often asked by the late great Joan Rivers – actually had an implied second clause: “Will you listen?”

And thereby hangs the problem. Talk is cheap; listening is rare.

Want confirmation? Spend a few minutes at a bar, restaurant, night club or any other social gathering venue. The noise level is almost guaranteed to be too high for meaningful conversation. One partygoer (okay, a 34-year-old, several generations younger than this writer/partygoer) said, “it just doesn’t feel like fun until the music and vibes are loud.” Restaurants say the noise level is needed for “buzz,” even while admitting to repeated complaints about diners’ inability to carry on conversations. It’s more just talk and talking back.

Politicians, who tend to like to talk, go on a lot of “listening tours,” the word first becoming commonplace with Hillary Clinton’s notorious preparation for her New York senatorial bid. The theory seems to be that if potential voters feel heard they’ll vote for you. But the reality is that the politician is generally listening more carefully for what potential there is for his or her upcoming campaign/proposed legislation/planned left or right direction than for the pleas of the constituency. Not that some pleas aren’t heard – More jobs! Healthcare! Housing! – but is any serious listening going on, on the part of either politician or voter? Not often. Generalized messages get through – shouts on camera do count – but these tours are for selective listening.

Serious listening is not selective, and involves a degree of compassion. Even the Buddha knew that. In a recent article published in The Buddhadharma, Zenkei Blanche Hartman responds to a question from someone whose friend is considering an abortion. Among other comments, she says, “Have you listened carefully to your friend…” and “What is the most compassionate response in this situation?”

Imagine, if carefulness and compassion could happen in the listening process.

One of the most treasured conversations I had when just beginning work on Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade was with a beloved adult niece who is a lifelong conservative Christian. I suggested that she might have to pretend she didn’t know me when my book came out, but asked if she would listen to my own story that had motivated it. She did listen, quietly and thoughtfully, not once interrupting or showing negative reaction through her body language. When I finished, she had this to say:

“Well, you know, Frannie, I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. But I do feel that someone in your situation should have had better options.” We left it at that. I did not in any way change her mind about abortion – she still believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder – but she acknowledged that my story is unique, just as all of us in the reproductive rights movement believe that every woman’s story is unique. And most importantly, I felt heard.

Of the many deeply divided and overly politicized issues roiling the U.S. today, probably none is more desperately in need of civil dialog – reasoned talk and compassionate listening – than that of reproductive justice. Abortion foes term the issue “rights of the unborn.” Clearly you can’t give rights to an unborn fetus without creating injustice for the woman involved; the first, obvious obstacle to listening is in the fact that we can’t even hear each other’s subject line.

This writer recently talked about the listening business with Heather Buchheim, a Senior Manager with Exhale Pro-Voice. Buchheim is a very good listener. This may have something to do with the fact that Exhale is all about listening. Not lecturing or advising, not judging or admonishing – listening. They are also about talking, with their Storysharing and their National Pro-Voice Tour, but it is talking with attention to the listener. They hope for a culture change through much the same nonviolent ways the Buddha suggested, a change many progressive activists today still dream of: “sharing our stories and listening respectfully (because) feeling heard is crucial to our emotional wellbeing.”

Perhaps, if the decibel level were turned down a little, wellbeing might increase.

 

 

The Perpetual Presidential Campaign

We have HOW long until the next presidential election?

Some of us just want to say, Give it a rest… but there seems little chance. Recently I rode the bus home with a new friend who had just attended her first event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, one of a popular series of “Week to Week” political roundtables. She was favorably impressed with the venue, the audience members she met, the moderator (Commonwealth Club Vice President for Media and Editorial John Zipperer) and the panelists: Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle; Bill Whalen, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Larry Gerston, political analyst, author and Professor, San Jose State University.

But she was irate about the way the discussion began: the better part of the first half hour was devoted to speculation, reports and analysis of the next presidential campaign. We’re talking about 2016.

Karl Rove gets the initial blame.

Rove’s now famous commentary on Hillary Clinton’s brain has itself been analyzed, reported and speculated upon ad nauseum: Was she injured in the 2012 fall? Did she fake it? Did it result in brain damage (“serious health issues”)? – and – bottom line: is her candidacy for the presidency in 2016 a done deal? This roundtable being a discussion of the past week’s news, it was perhaps inevitable that The Hillary Question would be the lead-off issue. So Zipperer led off with the Rove report and the panelists weighed in:

Whalen: “He (Rove) is trying to draw her into a ‘he said/ she said…’”

Gerston: “It’s a one-news-cycle thing… although health, age etc are legitimate issues.”

After these issues were legitimately raised and discussed, the panelists veered off into potential alternatives to Clinton: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick? (“If you can manage a good campaign, saying nice things about Hillary Clinton, you’re halfway there,” Whalen commented.) Or, what about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for Vice President?

Marinucci tossed out a couple of likely-looking Republicans, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul

Much of the balance of the program was spent on discussion of the firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Was she badly treated? Paid less than her male predecessors? Perhaps she was never quite the right fit for the job. Or, in the end, it might have been that she just could not get along with management. But the gender issue continues to hover. And in the “Week to Week” discussion this gave Carla Marinucci an opening to mention something that certainly rings true from this writer’s history of covering events dating back to the early 1960s.

“The first city council meeting I attended,” Marinucci reported, “the mayor asked me to get him coffee.” That, at least, may be a reason to forgive way-too-early discussions about a potential president of the United States – who happens to be a woman.

 

On politics, money and the death penalty

The death penalty – telecommunications money – Donald Sterling – corruption – shifting politics – even abortion access – it was all in a day’s conversation for the popular Week to Week political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today. But audience members, at social gatherings before and after, spoke of how the lively discussion – fueled in part by some pointed questions from the audience – indicates the widespread nature of citizen concerns in the information age.

“You can keep up with the basics of everything through social media,” said one thirty-something woman in a chic business suit, “but that makes you want events like this to dig a little deeper.” An older woman in the same small group added, “Well, I still read newspapers. And online magazines. But having a chance to hear real, live journalists discuss what they’re writing about is important.”

The program featured Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and “Token Conservative” blogger; author and former columnist Joan Ryan, Media Consultant for the San Francisco Giants; and Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Roundtable host is John Zipperer, Vice President of Media and Editorial for the Commonwealth Club.

Discussion of embattled, racist L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling quickly led to talk of what crimes and misadventures do or do not affect aspiring politicians. “Neel Kashkari is in fifth place behind a registered sex offender (Glenn Champ) who’s in third place,” Saunders commented; and Marinucci added that California Senate candidate Mary Hayashi denied having shoplifted $2,500 worth of goods from Neiman Marcus in 2011 despite having been convicted of the crime. All of which leaves open the question of whether people in public positions are, in fact, judged by what they do (Marinucci invited everyone to watch the video of Hayashi’s meeting with the Chronicle editorial board) or, as Saunders pointed out about the Sterling case, what they say.

On money and politics, the panelists were in agreement that telecommunication dollars killed the kill switch bill CA State Senator Mark Leno now plans to reintroduce. The bill would mandate software on smartphones that would enable owners to lock their devices remotely once they are lost or stolen. With smartphone theft rampant and law enforcement strongly backing the bill it might seem a win-win… except that, as Marinucci pointed out, replacement of phones and tablets is a $30 billion business for the wireless industry and no small business for replacement insurance companies.

There was less agreement on the death penalty, and the recent botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted of a horrendous crime in 1999. Saunders, who favors keeping the death penalty in California, suggested that some of the talk about individual cases and issues is not unlike abortion opponents using legal means to achieve extra-legal ends, as in passing state laws which effectively deny constitutional abortion rights. The panel did not take on that issue.

But Ryan, who strongly opposes the death penalty, stood her ground. She pointed out that the problem with securing proper drugs is that countries which could supply them have long since abandoned the death penalty and are incredulous that we still have it. “Do I mourn him (Lockett)? Not at all. But we have the ability to lock him up forever. I am against the death penalty because we are diminished by it.”

Zipperer wound up the event with the traditional Week to Week news quiz on current events ranging from local to international. In this audience, nobody answered wrong.

Crime on the political stage: It’s funny… until it turns sad

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

You can’t make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow

A recent “Week to Week” political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed “a journalist’s dream.” Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

… dozens of… clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

“At the heart of the government’s case against Yee,” Mintz writes, “are his own words — replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.”

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four — along with audience members — tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of “allegedly” air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. “Insane,” was the term Frisby used; “like Grand Theft Auto come to life.” Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail — hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama — and it’s impossible not to be following it unless you’re (already) in solitary confinement — are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying “Oh, all politicians are crooks.”

And it’s that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee “demeaned the office” by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he “allegedly” accepted cash with the remark that his children “could write the check” to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one’s head over corruption in Ukraine.

About those women in Boston

I don’t personally know Eleanor McCullen, so I have no reason to believe she is not a sincere, well-meaning woman who honestly believes it is her Christian duty to inject herself into the lives of perfect strangers. Ms. McCullen — if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks — is lead plaintiff in a case now before the Supreme Court. She and her fellow “Operation Rescue” protesters argue that they should not be prevented from encountering women trying to enter a clinic in Boston where abortions are performed. And that the 35-foot buffer zone currently protecting such women interferes with the protesters’ free speech right to speak directly into their faces.

Lord help us all.

Courtesy:  Keesa McCoy, 4/25/12
Eleanor McCullen (Courtesy: Keesa McCoy)

But first, back to Ms. McCullen. According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, she “looks like a cheery grandmother.” McCullen told Totenberg that she asks women to “just talk a minute before you rush in. You rush in so quickly, and then you come out in tears.” She tells women: “There’s another option other than taking the child, the small boy or girl, from the womb.” On her refrigerator she keeps pictures of the “babies she has saved.” That has to make her cheery. Perhaps every one of those babies is healthy, happy and well-fed, and living in a warm, loving home. One hopes.But I am still inclined to wonder about the other women. The women (and girls) who might appreciate the buffer zone because on that particular day in their very private lives they would prefer not to be accosted by a perfect stranger. Suppose you were one of them.

Suppose, for instance, you are a 14-year-old (who might look older to Ms. McCullen) who had been raped — probably repeatedly — by an uncle, or some other family favorite. Already traumatized beyond imagination, you might wish not to spend the next 6 or 7 months with this ugly reminder of unspeakable abuse, but rather try to struggle back into some sort of a life of your own. Is it really Ms. McCullen’s business if you want to make this choice?

Or suppose you have an eagerly anticipated, greatly wanted pregnancy, but have learned of a fetal anomaly that will mean it can only face a few hours or days of terrible suffering. Do you need to explain the wrenching decision to spare your child that suffering to a perfect stranger?

Possibly you are a young mother unable to care for too many children already, or perhaps a woman with so many drugs in your system you’re not willing or able to handle a drug-addicted infant. Maybe you’re a strong, independent woman with a promising career and complicated life, or maybe you’re an older woman who had difficulty with your last pregnancy and know another could be fatal. Does Ms. McCullen need to be let in on all of these details?

If Ms. McCullen needs baby pictures on her refrigerator, could she not go to the homeless shelters of Boston, or hang around the police stations where abused and neglected infants regularly turn up?

I don’t personally know any Operation Rescue people. So I have no reason to doubt their Christian commitment, even if my own Christian commitment is somewhat different. Their web site declares they seek “to restore legal personhood to the pre-born and stop abortion in obedience to biblical mandates.” Several of those words and phrases could be called into question, but the Supreme Court is only concerned, for now, with Ms. McCullen’s right to speak loudly in the face of innocent women, and odds are they’ll vote in favor of the cheery grandmother.

This cheery grandmother wants to weep.