Forget everything I just told you,” he said. “This conversation didn’t happen.”

“Agreed,” she said. “We never spoke.”

With that, they hung up the phone, and she knew it would be their last conversation for a while. She was right.

The trouble with listening well, she had learned, was what you hear. People would tell her everything, often beyond what they could afford, as if she were a diary with ears. She would listen to their uncensored musings and wonder, at times, if they realized what they were saying. It was many years before she understood that people’s readiness to confide in her was a mixed blessing.

Her first lesson came one night when she was in her 20s, having dinner with married friends. The wife was talking about some personal matter when suddenly a look of horror flashed across her husband’s face. Eyes darted furiously around the table. 

“Susan!” he exclaimed in disbelief, as if trying to stop a runaway train.  

Indeed, Susan had crossed some invisible line, discussing matters so private that her husband felt betrayed. Why would she do this, he wondered, and to what end?

Susan sensed a willing and sympathetic ear, which, in turn, loosened her tongue. But once the words were unleashed, the discussion didn’t end there. This was not a one-shot deal ”“ talk now, and the words would self-destruct. The listener would ask, weeks later, how things were going; would reasonably feel that, having been privy to certain information in the first place, she was invited into the conversation. Her continuing concern was somehow expected, a part of the package.

If spilling the beans had a price, it was paid by everyone.

To listen well, she had learned, was to find that people were unaccustomed to such courtesy. To even the most casual acquaintances, she appeared understanding, concerned, attentive, when sometimes she was just being polite.  

In the course of conversation, she would naturally talk and listen, asking questions to make sure she had understood. As a result, relationships advanced unevenly at times because her careful listening was misconstrued.  

Good manners were seen as solidarity; courtesy appeared to be much more.

With certain people, of course, she wanted to listen, wanted to hear, was always attentive. So there were times when she just wished that people might feel more reserved, less ready to confide. Otherwise there were the inevitable disclaimers when people felt over-exposed, having revealed too much.

To listen well, she had learned, was like witnessing a crime. You wanted to be careful with what you knew, for fear that it might come back to haunt all of you.

— Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications. This article originally appeared in The American Reporter.

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