Moments of Meaning

I have just returned from the annual convention of the National Speakers Association. It was an energizing gathering of professional speakers, authors, storytellers, facilitators, and consultants. We spent four days together focusing on the art and craft of informing, influencing, and inspiring our audiences.

As I reflect on what I heard and learned during that week one insight in particular stands out for me. Freddie Ravel, a professional musician, was one of the early General Session speakers. During his presentation he played bits of music by artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

But he wasn’t focused on the notes; he wanted us to hear the quiet moments between the notes – the pauses that let the just-completed sounds sink in and that produce the cadence and rhythm that makes the music so memorable.

The message for professional platform speakers was obvious, though profound:   pay as much attention to the silences you create as you do to the sounds. Those quiet moments give your listeners time to absorb and think about your message – and to relate it to their own lives and their personal needs. Without those pauses few of us would be able to absorb the meaning in the message.

Ravel also mentioned Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline and several other very important books about the psychology of organizational effectiveness). Senge observed that the foundation of learning is listening; but we as individual audience members usually complete the sentences we hear from the platform – often in ways that are very personal and may not have been intended by the speaker.

That insight hit a major chord for me because I was listening to Freddie Ravel just a few hours after I completed last week’s blog post/newsletter about the complexity of the human brain (“There is only one of you”). I had quoted from Steven Campbell’s book Making Your Mind Magnificent, but in that article I didn’t mention one of his comments that intrigued me even more than the number of neurons in the human brain.

When I heard Campbell speak at the June meeting of the Bay Area Consulting Network, he opened with this observation (not a direct quote, but close to what I remember):

I am speaking to you right now, but you are actually listening to yourself more than you are to me. Your brain talks to you 3-5 times as fast as you can listen to me. It’s saying all kinds of things, particularly in the moments when I pause. Some of what you say to yourself helps you make sense of my comments, but much of it is often unrelated stuff that’s important to you – like, ‘I wonder if that prospect I spoke to yesterday will call me back and hire me,’ or ‘Don’t forget to pick up some bread and eggs on the way home; Mary will kill me if I forget.’

Of course most of our private thoughts when we are in listening mode are more directly related to what we are hearing – but we do interject lots of unrelated ideas as well.

Campbell’s point is also profound: our brains work rapidly, making meaning out of the millions of signals they receive from all of our sensory organs as well as memories stored in other parts of that same brain. And the meaning your brain makes of your thoughts depends deeply on the sum total of your past experiences – all the synapses that run among your neurons, representing memories and providing filters for interpreting your current experiences.

So what? Two simple suggestions.

Listen to yourself; pay attention to what your memories and self-identity tell you about what you are hearing. Trust your filters. But in addition be sure you take time to think, to reflect, and to explore new ideas. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the “music” that others want you to hear. Sometimes it is far better to “hide out” in the spaces between the notes – those quiet places where you can discover (and invent) what matters to you.

Make spaces in your workday to do that listening. Get up from your workstation at least once an hour (that’s good for your physical health as well as your mental health). Take a walk – by yourself, or with a close friend. Get outside and get some fresh air. Practice meditation, or yoga. Anything you can do to give yourself time to slow down, to think, to reflect, to dream, will help you hear the signals from both your body and your brain.

I’m reminded of an old saying:  “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Take time to listen to yourself several times a day, and you’ll be amazed at how much more energy you have, how much more creative you’ll be, and how much more your friends and family will like you.

Do you pay attention to the spaces between the notes? Do you create those spaces when you need them? I’d love to hear your personal moments of meaning.

1 reply
  1. Bary Sherman
    Bary Sherman says:

    Jim, Thanks bringing this human condition to the surface of our thinking and awareness. Listening to others and ourselves is a valuable skill.

    Best regardsm Bary

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