Listening skills: what I learned from a primate

Apr 22 2014 by Duane Dike Print This Article

I tend to score pretty high on listening skills in all those peer and value assessment tests. I guess what that means is that I listen, or at least give the impression that I do. Shouldn't everyone be a good listener? Isn't listening part of good relationships? Yes, but that's not always the case.

Let's skip back to my youth to find one possible influence on how I became a better listener. I've written many a time that our personages are made up of uncountable factors such as education, climate, parenting, geography, teachers, friends, religion, bedtime, diet, and on and on and on. In my case, many the things I learned about listening came from my adopted little sister, a monkey.

Yes, we were the family with the monkey. Acquiring the little girl wasn't a planned event. As I think the story goes, my parents knew a woman who had Rosie (that would be the monkey) as a pet, but she (the woman) had a heart attack so we took the little tyke on as a temporary houseguest. However, as life goes, the woman died and Rosie became a permanent fixture in our family.

Rosie had her own wardrobe for those away from home excursions (no nakedness allowed here). Rosie even had her own stylish bathing gear for our trips to the beach. (I vividly remember two life guards driving up in their jeep and saying, "Well, it's not a dog," most likely referring to the sign behind us, "No dogs allowed.") For me, there was nothing strange about our arrangement. She was my little sister, of sorts.

Bath Time is Listening Time

What does my little primate friend have to do with listening? Remember, who we are as humans, and leaders, is comprised of millions of data points, some consciously received, others more subtly. I didn't recognize it at the time, but bath time was a special communication-filled event for Rosie. I'd lather her up, which she really enjoyed, and fluff her dry with a towel. It was a time of deep communication without human words. After all, Rosie didn't speak English and I didn't speak long-tailed macaque.

I'm not sure what language Rosie spoke, but she was quite effective at getting her points across. Her usual routine after each bath was to talk with me for about 30 minutes, mostly with coos, grunts, and other monkey like noises. Often she'd hold my hand or preen my arms or head during our chats. To be honest, I had no idea what she was trying to tell me with her monkey language. She talked, I listened. And, little known to me at the time, I was learning a life-long skill: focusing on the other person.

I didn't interrupt my little friend, and didn't bother with those mindless head nods and robot like human grunts. I patiently focused on her interests while she talked. My guess, she was telling me about her bath, maybe the things in her life, the dogs that lived behind us, and how much she loved me, although that's all just supposition. What I do know is she was much more intelligent than my other pets. (One of which is a turtle I've had for 50 years; still lives in my backyard.)

Monkeys and Leadership

Rosie is long gone, passing oh so many years ago of age-related sickness. She died holding my mother's hand, a special exchange of feelings for the both of them. Things have changed a lot since then and I'd never recommend taking on a monkey as a pet because of the constant care needed (not to mention local ordinances).

Each of us (now speaking of us humans) has his or her special story, of some particular input in our lives that shapes who we are. Maybe it was an especially influential grandparent, or a teacher who paid meticulous attention, or time spent alone mastering a musical instrument. All experiential input turns us into humans to be part of this community called earth.

My special input was a monkey who was part of my life for nearly 20 years. I have her to thank for helping me become a better, outward focused, thinking leader.

Thanks for listening.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.