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Based on the numbers alone, it’s obvious Larry King spent time listening to a lot of different people in his 87 years. The broadcasting legend, who died on Jan. 23, conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews. He was on national talk radio for more than 15 years, and hosted Larry King Live on CNN for another 25 years.
King departs at a time of division in America, with people having trouble agreeing even on basic facts. But he’s left behind interesting reflections on the value of listening.
“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening,” King once said about his interview style, according to Newsweek. “I never learned anything while I was talking.”
He took a non-confrontational style in his interviews, and explained that he would ask follow-up questions without attacking his guests.
“I don’t pretend to know it all,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Associated Press.
More than 25 years later, perhaps all of America could benefit from that perspective.
We don’t mean to suggest that anyone, particularly people whose voices have historically been underrepresented in our society, should shrink from their knowledge and experience in the name of avoiding conflict. They should, and must, speak out. But many of us could stand to approach discussions with other people more from a position of learning and not just knowing. Too often, people seem geared up to have arguments when they should be preparing for conversations.
“Experts say the solution to this social polarization crisis is to cultivate more positive social connections,” Pearce Godwin and Graham Bodie, who are both involved in an effort called the Listen First Project, wrote in a recent USA Today OpEd about bridging the country’s political divide.
Their commentary came before the events of Jan. 6, but their message remains relevant. “We encourage all Americans to positively connect with people they encounter by listening first to understand. Then take the courageous step toward intentional conversations that welcome people of diverse perspectives,” they wrote.
Larry King’s interview style could be instructive in those types of international conversations. And as another King, U.S. Sen. Angus King, referenced in a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” it’s more than the act of listening, but how people listen, that can make a difference in today’s polarized climate.
King, an independent, mentioned the term “eloquent listening.” That’s a term also embraced by former Republican U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.
“There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say. You don’t have to agree, but you have to hear what they’ve got to say,” Baker once said about working with his colleagues in the Senate. “And if you do, the chances are much better you’ll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership.”
It can also translate into useful dialogue between all of us non-senators, even if that sounds overly hopeful.
We don’t doubt that some of the disagreement in America today exists precisely because people are listening to each other, and don’t like what they hear. But to the extent that we all can stop talking past each other and “eloquently” listen to one another, that would be a step in the right direction.