Two Good Listeners: What Happens When They Sit Down to Talk?


To be a fly on the wall when Barack Obama sat down with the Dalai Lama. Both legendarily good listeners. Both committed to empathic leadership. Certainly one imagines that the president was on his very best behavior and that the Tibetan leader is always in the patient-compassionate zone. What exactly happened? Who spoke more? Was it a completely equal?

There’s a well-worn piece of advice about listening – because we have two ears but only one mouth we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. But naturally the question arises: What about when both people are listening twice as much as they are talking. In a 60 minute meeting that means person A could speak for 15 minute and listen for 30 minutes. Person B could do the same. That leaves what? Thirty minutes of silence. Probably not 30 minutes in a row of silence but each minute of talking surrounded by 60 seconds of quietude. Time for appreciation of each other’s point of view, the constraints and challenges each side faces. Time to breathe. Time to really connect to each other’s faces, really see into each other’s eyes. Time for discernment and wonder.

The Dalai Lama is certainly comfortable with silence. Perhaps the president is too, considering he has been sending his children to a Quaker school.

The next time we meet with someone important in our lives, might we honor the other with a connection that can often be more profound than words?