speak/listen

Did anybody ask for your opinion?

Every man will dispute with great good humour upon a subject in which he is not interested
— Dr Samuel Johnson

By John-Paul Flintoff

We all want to be “right”. To know best. To be expert, with knowledge of things that are interesting and important. (I’m showing that myself by writing this – as if what I am thinking must be worthy of your attention.)

But sometimes we make mistakes, and offer our “wisdom” where it is not needed or welcome.

Late last year, I was in a cafe, with a group of people. A friend of one woman arrived at our table, and we asked her to join us. She took the seat opposite my friend Ruth and beside me. In the way you do, we started exchanging information about how we knew various people in common.

Then something happened that rang a wrong note. Ruth was telling the woman something – something quite remarkable, as it happens – and the woman cut in.

“I’ll tell you something interesting,” she said, before Ruth had finished. Ruth politely fell silent and listened to the woman’s story. It was reasonably interesting. But I found it hard to listen enthusiastically because I was too conscious of the hidden implication of her opening: “You think that’s interesting? Wait till I tell you something better!”

We all do this occasionally. It’s a danger that can hardly be avoided, given the to and fro of conversation. You listen a bit, you speak a bit. Sometimes you might trample on somebody if you cut in – but if you keep silent always you are leaving them to do all the work, and that’s not ideal either.

I might not have mentioned this at all if the woman hadn’t gone on to say several things that were more openly destructive. In the minutes that followed, she told Ruth that the schools she had in mind for her daughter next year are variously useless, academically, prone to racist bullying, and (in one instance) that the girls there are all seen by boys at nearby schools as “whores”.

This would have been distressing to hear even if Ruth had asked for her opinion. But she hadn’t. Ruth looked rattled, but the woman carried on in the same vein until, eventually unable to take any more, Ruth got up and said she needed to be somewhere else.

I don’t know what the woman intended to be the impact of her observations. Not being her, I can only guess. But I’m not sure that even she knows: I strongly suspect that she has not actually considered her impact, only the “truth” (as she sees it) about particular schools, and about what makes a story interesting.

You can probably think of times when people have behaved like this to you – I can! It’s extremely painful.

But what is much harder is to think of times when we ourselves have behaved like this.

So here’s my challenge to you: next time you are about to offer your opinion, ask yourself if it’s really wanted. And then, before you deliver it, ask the other person.

Posted: January 9, 2015