Mark D. Gearan

President Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Remarks
May 19, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I like to listen to our Chaplain Lesley Adams.

A few months ago in a closing reflection at a student dinner she urged all of us to listen to one another.

As it happens, at the same time, I was reading an interesting new book by Daniel Pink entitled “To Sell is Human:  The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.” The author writes of the importance of listening to others quoting the American philosopher Mortimer Adler who wrote 30 years ago:

“Is anyone anywhere taught how to listen?  How utterly amazing is the general assumption that the ability to listen well is a natural gift for which no training is required.  How extraordinary is the fact that no effort is made anywhere in the whole educational process to help individuals learn how to listen well.”

So before you leave us with your newly minted degrees –  a few words on the importance of listening.  Admittedly, it was not one of the eight goals satisfied in your curriculum, it was not a major or minor or Honors topic.  Nor was it an interdisciplinary focus in any of our global education programs. But before your education is truly complete here in Geneva New York 14456 – allow for a brief reflection on this critical skill.

Researchers estimate that we spend 45% of our waking hours listening.  And while it may sound easy – to just listen – it is actually a hard task and valued skill.

Pink writes:  “For many of us, the opposite of talking isn’t listening.  It’s waiting.  When others speak, we typically divide our attention between what they’re saying now and what we’re going to say next – and end up doing a mediocre job at both.” 

Other writers observe that “Listening is not the same as hearing.  Hearing refers to the sounds that you hear, whereas listening requires more than that:  it requires focus.  Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told…”

We know many of the things that prevent us from truly listening:  worry, anger, bias, prejudice, fear.

And part of the challenge, Pink argues, is compounded by our fast paced society where the simple act of slowing down may facilitate better listening. 

Try this coaching technique – before you respond in a conversation wait five to 15 seconds. 

Let’s try it.   Recall in your mind a recent conversation you have had with a friend on an important topic.  Remind yourself what your friend said to you and then imagine waiting five to ten seconds before you respond. 

Got the mental image in your head?  Okay – here’s ten seconds.

Seems like a long time, right?  It’s what one facilitator calls “Amazing Silence” to promote enhanced listening.

Again from Pink:  “Listening without some degree of intimacy isn’t really listening.  It’s passive and transactional rather than active and engaged.  Genuine listening is a bit like driving on a rain-slicked highway.  Speed kills.  If you want to get to your destination, you’re better off decelerating and occasionally hitting the brake.”

In starting to study more about this listening skill – I became fascinated with the considerable literature and coaching on this topic.

The importance of active listening is held out in business texts as the “key to all effective communication….good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity and fewer mistakes, increased sharing of information that in turn can lead to more creative and innovative work.”

Others see active listening as “an extension of the Golden Rule.  To know how to listen to someone else, think about how you would want to be listened to.”

From the workplace to personal lives – good listening is attributed to “a greater number of friends and social networks, improved self esteem and confidence, higher grades in academic work and increased health and wellbeing.  Studies have shown that, whereas speaking raises blood pressure, listening brings it down.”

And, of course, the web is always full of lists.  In this case, a list of techniques to improve better listening from – of all places – “”!

  1. Stop talking
  2. Prepare yourself to listen
  3. Put the speaker at ease
  4. Remove distractions
  5. Empathize
  6. Be patient
  7. Avoid personal prejudice
  8. Listen to the tone
  9. Listen for ideas – not just words
  10. Wait and watch for non-verbal communication

All good advice, I am sure.

But I would also observe – that we need good listeners now more than ever.  Lainie Heneghan, a British management consultant, recommends what she termed “radical listening – allowing the other person to express themselves completely, without interruption and without any preconceived notions on your part – with the intent to fully absorb and process what they are saying.”

Especially today, we need active, radical listeners to listen to views that may be different than your own. To listen to voices and views that will challenge your established order.

Or as the British scholar Sharon Todd wrote, to listen “to the voices of the marginalized and the wounded and on giving space and time to those groups to articulate their own experiences, struggles, dilemmas and needs.”    “Listen we do and Listen we must” she said. 

And I suspect for many of us -- this is when active listening gets really tough.

In her book “The Other Side of Language: a Philosophy of Listening”, the Italian philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara sought to highlight the importance of listening which, she argues, has been largely ignored in the Western tradition: 

“We mistake warring monologues for genuine dialogue” she wrote, and then noted the risks of listening:

“how the listener must listen to that which is not easy and which has the potential of disrupting a sense of self….If listening doesn’t risk some kind of fundamental shift in understanding – it’s not genuine listening.  This may be what makes listening so difficult in the first place.”

But if we are to truly build communities of trust and inclusion – we must listen to one another and to other viewpoints in meaningful ways.

Our Honorary Degrees are good examples of active, successful listeners:

Mara O’Laughlin listened to prospective students and their college aspirations and selected classes of students who thrived here at Hobart and William Smith; she listened to the voices of our William Smith alumnae as we neared the Centennial celebration and secured the resources to bring a Leadership Center to our campus with dazzling programming;

John Grotzinger listens to researchers and fellow scientists as he tests hypotheses that lead to groundbreaking developments;

Maureen Curley listens to the needs of communities and matches colleges and universities’ missions to the betterment of the common good;

And, I know that James Carville listens to very different views in his own household.  Don’t you wonder what comes on television first in the Carville/Matalin household down in New Orleans?  Fox or MSNBC? 

I was sharing my thinking on this topic with Hobart Dean Eugen Baer and noting a powerful quotation I had read from Epictetus.  Of course, Dean Baer was aware of his writing informing me that he was a Greek Stoic philosopher who was a freed slave nineteen centuries ago when he said:

“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

Again:  “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

So now with your ninth goal of listening fully satisfied, my responsibility lies simply in urging you to go forth.

Go forth to serve.

Go forth to be active and engaged global citizens.

Go forth to bring credit to yourselves, honor to your families and pride to your alma mater.

Go forth to lead lives of consequence.

And listen – truly listen – along the way.

Good luck.