I remember a number of times looking up the expression “hear hear….” Did the expression mean people in agreement were present (here), or that the speaker had been heard? Of course, it is the latter; a statement of agreement, just as “hear ye, hear ye…” is a call to attention. It took me a long time to equate “hear, hear…” with “yes, and…,” and to recognize that while idioms change, groups of people have forever found ways to affirmatively communicate. A quick etymology search dates “hear, hear…” to at least the seventeenth century when parliamentarians would intone “hear him, hear him…;” thereafter shortened to simply “hear, hear….”
I first understood the power of listening by observing the unique qualities of a particularly popular high school friend. This teen had a lot going for him; capable on the pitch and rink, as he captained both the soccer and hockey teams. He was smart, and dressed well, too. While athletic accomplishment, intelligence and vanity are undeniable predictors of success, these traits were only partially responsible for my friend’s popularity. On top of everything else, he was quiet, without being aloof; and after observing him closely, I realized he was a natural and sincere listener. Upon reflection, I am not sure which was more unique, the skills my friend exhibited, or my competitive and jealous need to understand and emulate them.
Ever since figuring this out, I’ve tried to be a better listener. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as it seemed to come to my classmate. By the time we were in high school together, I had learned many other adolescent lessons that conflicted with the patience necessary to be a great listener. Narcissism and a constant need to be the center of attention leap to mind. Self-awareness and leadership are great upsides of narcissism and being the center of attention, but they can only take one so far, and can even set one back. Our greatest accomplishments often come from careful and sincere listening.
Careful listening takes practice, and sometimes we are gently reminded that other traits and priorities have impacted our hearing. I recall running into such a situation during the schematic design phase of a project featuring additions and renovations to a National Historic Registry home owned by a repeat client. In consultation with a local architect, who was also the chair of the community’s historic commission, I proposed building the primary addition directly behind the main house, thereby using the historic home to hide the new. While this deference to the historic structure was thoughtful and nuanced, the client had other ideas. The proposed additions turned the existing small living room into an appropriately scaled entry foyer, but at the same time, materially changed the feel of the house, and specifically, the feel of the owner’s favorite room. After a few presentations and false starts, I received a heartfelt and apologetic email from the client sharing, in spite of working together on a number of projects, that I simply was not listening. As architects and designers, we enjoy our share of criticism, but “not listening?” After receiving the email, and having given it a tremendous amount of thought, we reconsidered the design approach, eventually going forward with a new design that simultaneously satisfied the client’s program and respected the home’s historic significance.