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Listening for the Sound of Another’s Voice

Every listener makes assumptions, and the risk of misinterpretation is always present.

As speakers, we expect that listeners understand not just the words we’re saying, but our intent — where we’re coming from and what we mean. As listeners, we assume that we understand exactly what a speaker is saying as well as the context they bring to the subject.

It reminds me of the picture of the little girl on the cardboard canister of Morton Salt, who holds a cardboard canister of Morton Salt with a picture of a little girl who holds a canister of salt…

But with so many assumptions in the air, how do we know if we’re really understood? How do we hear what’s really being said?

And what happens when we know we’re not understood, when we know we disagree, when there really seems to be no chance of our hearing each other?

I believe that the recent tragedy in Tucson was caused by a man who had gone over the edge of mental health. I believe he should have been in care and should not have had access to weaponry. I have no idea if he was responding to any voices other than the ones in his head, any stories other than those he told himself, any directives that came from anywhere besides his own malfunctioning brain.

And yet history shows that increases in hateful speech (even in schoolyards) lead to increases in hateful incidents. It takes sticks and stones or their equivalent to break bones directly. But words can hurt. They can cause damage on an interpersonal level, certainly, by violating trust or civility. And they can cause societal damage by appearing to condone or foster harmful acts.

Does language create action? Did the current environment of inflamed speech trigger the shooting at the Safeway? Was there causation, or just correlation? I can’t say.

But wouldn’t it make sense that intense talk and pointed imagery would have more impact on the unstable than on those who already know their own minds?

And doesn’t lots of noise make it harder to hear small messages, whispers of worry, whimpers of sadness, cries for help?

We’re not all the same. We’re not even all alike. We’re more interesting that way — but we need to make the effort to pay enough attention to be able to hear the sound of another’s voice.

Onward and upward,


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