Listening in the Cracks

Friday, April 24, 2015 - 4:22am
Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Listening in the Cracks

I get to a small town in Indiana just 15 minutes before the restaurant within the Holiday Inn is closing for the night. I don’t feel particularly hungry, even though it is nearly midnight. I am still riding the adrenaline of the 100-mile drive through an unknown darkness alongside semi-trucks.

I’d flipped through the preposterous number of Sirius radio channels before settling on silence. I don’t get a lot of silence these days. My darkness is mostly familiar — a baby whimpering in the next room, my husband getting up to go to the bathroom, the homeless folks sorting through the recycling bins outside our bedroom window. It felt good to be hurdling myself through night, alone and on a mission.

My eyes wander over the menu, unsatisfied. “The chicken wings are really top notch,” says the man sitting at the bar. A long, rectangular plate filled with chicken wings and onion rings is piled in front of him. He takes a long sip of his beer. He is black, balding, wearing a cranberry velour jumpsuit, looks to be in his 50s.

“Everything is good here,” the waitress reassures me. She is young, maybe in her late 20s, wearing a lot of foundation that is even paler than her already pale skin. I’m cynical about her claim, but order the burger and hope for the best. I sit at a tall table, away from the bar, hoping to send the message that I am enjoying my rare solitude.

I end up eavesdropping instead. It’s a compulsion.

My previous partner, Nikolai, a born-and-bred New Yorker, tried to teach me how to look into the glass of the subway doors so I could see the reflection of the people I was listening to rather than staring straight at them, but I never got the hang of it. I’m hopeless. I eavesdrop like other people watch reality television, I guess — a little guiltily, but with so much pleasure that I can’t resist.

(M. Jeremy Goldman / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

In any case, the chicken wing aficionado clearly isn’t a guest of the hotel, but a local who frequents the Holiday Inn for late dinners. He and the waitress have the kind of rapport that evolves over many late nights of shooting the shit. They talk about their love lives. He is gay, struggling to find partners in a town where there isn’t a very visible gay community. She is trying to get over a bad man, someone that she knows doesn’t deserve her but she loves all the same. They even talk about sex. He’s scared to have it again after so long. She’d thought it would make him stay; now she realizes that it’s better it didn’t.

It’s such an intimate conversation. There is so much shared struggle between these two people who, on paper, would seem to have nothing to talk about — different generations, different races, different genders, different sexual orientations. Yet, here they are, in this small town plunked in the middle of endless cornfields, perched on opposite sides of a hotel bar, just listening to one another talk.

The Center for Courage and Renewal, the organization that Parker Palmer co-founded, has what they call a “touchstone,” which basically means a guideline or agreement for a group: “No fixing, saving, advising, or correcting each other.”

The first time I read it, it sort of took my breath away. So much of our time is spent listening to other people in a doggedly goal-oriented way. Underneath our listening, we’re asking ourselves: What can I pluck from what this person is saying that I identify with? What confirms my worldview? What gives me an opportunity to offer advice or a response that will showcase my own intelligence or a chance to share an experience about my life?

I don’t mean to make that kind of listening sound shallow or manipulative. Ultimately, it’s with great intention that we listen like that. We crave to connect. We crave to be seen. We crave to comfort. It’s a very useful kind of listening. It helps us create new nodes, get things done, coalesce within communities.

But there is another kind of listening, a listening that we neglect at our own peril, that is not about getting some particular place, but simply about witnessing another human being. This kind of listening is long and open-ended. It’s patient. It’s curious. It’s not calculating. This kind of listening operates on only one level — the words coming out, the way they hit the ear, the shaping of a story, a sadness, a yearning, a wish.

The guy and the woman in that Holiday Inn, close to midnight on a Monday, were listening like that to one another. Witness over chicken wings. And they made me think about all the people all over the country, sitting in hotel bars and lingering outside of churches and snuggled on living room couches and sitting over steaming cups of tea and maybe even crammed onto airplanes who listen without static or plotting. It’s an overlooked kind of love, a way we stay sane. It happens in the cracks, under the radar, just between two people. And it doesn’t happen enough.

The burger was surprisingly good. The lesson in listening, totally unexpected.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



I am a talker, a sometimes interjector, and a want to be sage advisor. Thank you for the reminder that often just listening is enough.

Judy Garland once admitted her lifelong fascination with eavesdropping and, in doing so, pointed out that it is a guilty pleasure somewhat universal to us all: "I love to eavesdrop and peek through keyholes, and I've never peeked through one keyhole without finding somebody looking back at me. It's terrible," she said, laughing.

I appreciate the moment captured by Courtney Martin and, even more so, the beautiful insight she distills from it about the kind of listening that has no agenda except to fully witness the thoughts of the speaker. My own fascination with listening comes from a childhood filled with sitting on the fringes of conversations by my elders— parents, grandparents and even great grandparents— soaking up everything they said, hoping for a juicy tidbit here and there. In small town Alabama where my family is from, conversation often (perhaps always!) took the form of an interactive sort of storytelling. Little did I realize that my early eavesdropping would actually teach me a lot about the art of listening and being heard.

Thanks, On Being, for keeping such thoughtful stories in front of us all.

Thanks for the Judy Garland quote! And LOVE the image of little you, sitting on the fringes, soaking up the elders' wisdom.

Oh, my. What a beautiful, beautiful post. To be seen - really seen by another is so rare these days but ever so important. I love the way Courtney intentionally sees others.

Thank you, Jane! Touched to be seen by you.

I enjoy all your posts. And in so many of them I find one line that really affects me. In this one it's the "it's an overlooked kind of love, a way we stay sane." How true. I find that the time I spend with my dearest, oldest friend who is suffering from ALS, that we have this kind of listening relationship. It's easy, it's natural. I don't listen like that too often with my kids and some lesser friends. I feel a role, or maybe an obligation to solve a problem. Why do these seemingly little observations you share seem to move me to try to become better? Thank you.

Wow, thank you so much Susan. This means a lot.

Ah, what a wonderful story. Every now and then, I wonder whether everything we thinkers muse on and write about and attend conferences to learn--all of this meaning making we do--happens effortlessly in hotel bars and coffee shops and auto garages, by "plain ordinary" folks who've never heard the term "meaning making." If this is true, it may put me (as a writer)out of business. But I hope it is true, because it is certainly beautiful.

Not likely with a quick text.....requires time together.... Cathy, me too.

Wonderful piece, Courtney.This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. "Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference." David Augsburger

When I try to save or advise, etc., it never feels right. Thank you so much for the touchstone guidelines, which I have written down and will use to become a better person.

Thank you for your reflections on the values and benefits of listening. It reminded me that I have one mouth and two ears and that I should use them in that ratio. Practicing active listening; seeking not just to hear but to understand, is a skill that I can benefit from. Thanks for the reminder.

I believe this a very important framework for deeper connections with others.

Thanks Ms Martin for your insightful articles and crystal writing skills. Don't ever stop or deprive the world of your messages.

What’s so hard for the sufferer to take is that cheery efforts to comfort are often made before even knowing how the sufferer is feeling. When issued too speedily, they will never reveal what the sufferer needs. And therein lies their subversive harm. The failure of cheery efforts to comfort is not a problem of the griever being unable to good. It is a problem of the consoler failing to connect. Because ultimately, empathy is not telling someone how to feel.

It may be frustrating to wait for, but perspective that enables us to feel more positively about a situation is gained from within, not acquired when cursorily issued from without.

For a griever, there is rarely any more comfort than companionship on the awful path of sorrow. Hopefully, that path will also include joy in time. But there is no guarantee that it will, and there is no timeline for when it does. That is the plight of the griever. That is the plight of the witness. There is no human gain in shying away from that, awful as it feels.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

- See more at:

Delightful! My favorite kind of listening...I think of this (outside of religious dogma) as offering a "ministry of presence" - which ends up being healing for everyone involved.

I love this. Thank you for the reminder.

Listening is enough. I forget that sometimes.

I live in a city of 26 million and I not just eavesdrop but can dance to myriad conversations all the time. I am also a businessperson and analyse things from an Exonomic perspective: I often find that strangers are so open minded and open armed with listening and sharing because the "cost" of doing so is less but the same person may turn to family or a child ( high cost) and stops listening but starts exhorting. These incessant eavesdropping has made me aware, admittedly via the route of shame, of my own lacunae in listening. Your article so nicely circled the circle for me. Thanks

Excellent, Thanks. As an old westerner I've had many opportunities to
enjoy such wonderous and simple life experiences, connecting with only
living that moment as the goal or intent. DBM

Courtney, I'm so glad to rediscover you and to find your life oddly in sync with mine. I recognized the Parker Palmer quote immediately, and had felt a similar sense of awe when I first read it. His description of community in solitude--and solitude in community--stopped me in mid-paragraph; I had to transcribe what he'd written on my phone so I could carry it everywhere. For days I kept trying to share that sense one has when a life-shifting truth becomes clear, but I couldn't communicate it; my descriptions fell short. Now I don't have to--I can just share the URL to "Listening in the Cracks." Thank you for this reflection, and for serving up exactly what I needed. It's as if you take requests, because this is what I've been looking for. Your words, as always, sustain me.

Witnessing...such a powerful way of being present to the humanity that makes our world so beautiful and so challenging. Thank you for this touching reminder of the beauty of listening to one another. I love your writing.

A sage reminder from a young one to this old one about curbing the ego to live with greater respect for all those other struggling miracles among us.