Be a Generous Listener, as Abe Lincoln Was

“Mr. Lincoln possessed extraordinary empathy – the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals.

“Lincoln listened with the same energy that sparked his interest in books.” Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings.

“Lincoln’s favorite attitude when listening – and he was a good listener – was to lean forward and clasp his left knee with both hands.” Benjamin Perley Poore, journalist, author.

 “Each visitor was greeted with an encouraging nod and smile…. the President listening with the most respectful and patient attention.” Francis Fisher Browne, journalist.


Abraham Lincoln’s listening skills were tied to his empathy for others. To be like Lincoln, we listen attentively to others and have compassion for their burdens. We cannot connect with people or care about them unless we are tuned to their wavelength.

MacGyver and Sons

My two sons are 19 and 22 years old. I speak to them as one adult to another, though it still seems strange to me. I still think of them as babies. I used to read them bedtime stories and change their diapers. My wife and I shared all the baby duties, but I drew the line at breast-feeding.

Now, if I want to be a constructive part of their lives, I have to listen to them. I do things with them that they like to do. I often assist them when they work on their cars. I also help them to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of life.

I represent a quirky MacGyver-type figure to my boys. They come to me for help to solve problems, or to tap into my extensive bank of knowledge (based on years of miscalculations and outright blunders).

I often just stroll into the boys’ rooms, sit on a bed, and chitchat with them about their daily activities – things like movies, or work, or their school (junior college), but sometimes they will open up to me about a concern they may have that I can help them with.

The key is to put myself in casual situations with my boys. This way, the communication channels are always open between us and our relationship continues to grow.

Fast and Furious in the Driveway

For example, my older son has always had an independent streak, He’s a rebel without a clue. Now, at 22 years old, he still lives at home but he, not surprisingly, doesn’t like to obey the rules. Specifically, when his car is blocked in the driveway, he drives on the front yard to extricate himself. He also rarely washes dishes and his room is messy. He has crossed the fine line between being “independent” and being “lazy.”

Each person in my family has a car, so we often have four cars in the drive way. It’s common for one of our cars to be blocked in. The problem is that my wife and I put plastic under the decorative rocks in the front yard. Driving cars on the front yard breaks the plastic, allowing weeds to grow.

My blood boiled when I saw him drive on the decorative rocks a few days ago. My first inclination was to shout, “Do not ever drive on the rocks again!” but that would only light his fuse.

Later in the day, with my affable personality firmly in place, I went into my son’s bedroom. He was playing video games. I sat on his bed. I could tell he was in a relaxed mood. After a few casual remarks, he said,

“Pop, when I’m in a hurry to go places and it feels frustrating to have my car blocked in the driveway. That’s why I drive on the front yard.”

“Instead of driving across the front yard,” I said, “you could:

1) Get the key and move the car behind you;

2) Tell me when you are blocked in and I will move the car behind you;

3) If you know you have to leave again, just park on the street where you won’t be blocked in.”

“Okay, Pop,” he replied, embracing his affable personality.

The affable listening approach, just as the pen, is mightier than any sword.

Write it Down

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory,” said Steven Wright. That describes the state of my wobbly memory. If I want to remember something I must write it down, or take a picture with the phone. Sometimes I do both.

When I talk to someone, their words fly through the space between my ears like laser guided missiles, unless I write them down. These are often important things to remember, such as, they are having surgery, taking a trip, or the names of brothers and sisters or spouses. I make a habit of writing down what people say, immediately after I speak to them (I always carry pen and paper in my pockets), then later I transfer that information for permanent storage in my Daily Journal.

For example, I write down my younger son’s junior college schedule class each semester, the first time he tells me. That way I can ask him how his class went, mentioning the correct class, each day. It makes him think that I am interested and that I have the memory of the Amazing Kreskin.

As a substitute teacher, I always write down the names of teachers and other people I meet (janitors, teacher assistants, and staff) and record pertinent information about them. This is particularly useful when I return to a school after a long absence teaching in other schools. I can use my notes to refresh my memory of the names of people I will be working with again.

Cary Grant – Listener Extraordinaire

Carry Grant had a richly deserved reputation as an actor who could genuinely listen to his co-stars.

Judy, Judy, . . .

The Atlantic Magazine (Jan/Feb 2007) reported,

“Cary Grant found a novel way to treat women in film: he clearly related to his heroine as a attractive woman—and also as a witty, intelligent, and idiosyncratic one. Often he conveyed this by adopting the strategy of simply listening to her. (With both his male and female costars, Grant would emerge as probably the best—that is, the most unobtrusively generous—listener in Hollywood.) The result was that Grant allowed the actress’s performance to emerge and flourish. He thus transformed his leading ladies ‘into comic goddesses’.”

Sure, any Tom, Dick or Harry can do a Cary Grant impersonation, but how many can match his finely honed listening skills?

Big Bang Listening Example

Here is a sparkling example of listening from The Big Bang Theory as Sheldon coaches Amy in the fine art of listening.

Transformative Listening

Like Cary Grant, Amy and Sheldon, we can transform the people that we speak with through our generous listening. The more generous we are, the more confidence and eloquence our friends will develop.


Upcoming Pesentations:

October 20, 2018. How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds and Funny Bones. Prescott Valley Public Library (7401 E. Civic Circle), 1:00 – 2:00 pm. Prescott, AZ.





Related Links

Like Abe Lincoln, Be Prepared with a “Quip” or a Bit of Humor

Emulate Abraham Lincoln: Make Each Day Count

The “Secret” Daily Affirmations of Abraham Lincoln

Always greet everyone, no matter what they look like

Employ an Affable Lincolnesque Persona

Abe Lincoln and Inner Guidance – stay close to the “cave of the winds”

Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor

Places in the Heart

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