"magic happens when we suspend our right to be right."
frequently asked questions
Q. Why is your website called “RonnieListens”? Why didn’t you just call it by your full name?
A. No one would find me! For most people, knowing how to spell my last name is even harder than knowing how to pronounce it (which is “Pol-uh-NES-kee,” by the way). Besides, listening is what gets me jazzed. It’s the bedrock of what I do as a journalist, sure, but how well I listen affects every relationship I have – with the people I love and with my own gut. Once I started making deep listening a deliberate act instead of a coincidental one, every area of my life got better. Not in a shiny, hearts-and-rainbows way but in a way that lets me feel brave, capable, loving and forgiving.
Q. How did you get obsessed with listening?
For the long version, you can watch my TEDx talk, here. But, in a nutshell, I always prided myself on being a good listener, until the day a furious reader, who hated one of my columns and called to say so, made me realize what a miserable listener I could be. That humbling, lightning-bolt moment set me on a mission to learn what makes for good listening – the kind that makes us feel heard, known, and understood.
Q. So what have you learned?
That the best kind of listening happens when we let go of our right to be right – and by that, I mean the right to believe that our judgments about someone are objectively true, even before we’ve heard the person out. The best listeners are actually more interested in hearing what we think and learning why we think that way than they are in telling us what they think about what it was we just said. They have substituted being curious for being right – and they do it reflexively. I don’t know if they were born that way, or what. Thankfully, I’ve found that good listening can be learned and taught.
Q. So you’re a master listener now?
(Snort.) No. But I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I’m a deficient one, which at least gives me the chance to make the course correction to be a good one again.
Q. Do you talk to people about listening?
God, yes! It’s just about my favorite thing to do because I truly believe that what I’ve learned about deep listening, as a deliberate practice instead of a coincidental one, can change the world. Plus, the steps to becoming a good listener are simple – not always easy, but simple. Bosses can learn them, parents can learn them, kids can learn them, elected leaders can learn them.
The bedrock of good listening is awareness of our own biases, ego, and fears so that we can set them aside long enough to actually hear what another person is saying. This isn’t always good news, by the way – reality can be a tough world to live in. But more often than not, the result is so much better than anything we could’ve imagined when we were hanging with a death grip onto our right to be right. I promise you that this is true.
Q. So what’s this fellowship you’re working on?
So glad you asked. I wrote a column that explains what led to the fellowship and what I hope to do with it. You can read it, here.
And please do not be put off by the column’s photo of Christina Sankey, the intellectually disabled young woman whose death made such an impact on me. As an adult, she was no longer as adorable as she had been as a toddler. America likes its intellectually disabled people when they’re precious toddlers, by the way, but not so much when they grow into odd-acting grown-ups with strange effects. I got to know Chris only after her death, through stories told by her mom and sister. Their sorrow haunts me. This fellowship, I hope, will help families like Christina’s get the help they need to care for the aging, intellectually disabled children they cherish.
Q. How do keep from crying when you have to write stories like that?
I often bawl like a baby, actually. But not every story I write is a weeper. And I work with really fun, funny and nice people. We laugh a lot. It makes me feel at home because I grew up the fourth of nine children in a loud, crazy family that had little money but an abundance of love – including the demented, unintentionally hilarious kind. When my brothers and sisters and I used to fight, my mother would yank us apart and shout, “So help me, God, you kids are gonna love each other if I have to beat it into you!” My father played the accordion and forced his six musical daughters (we have excellent pitch) to sing harmonies on nonsense songs like, “Suzanne Was a Funny Old Man.”
Growing up that way fine-tunes your funny bone, which can save you when nothing else can.