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I’m trying to be more like St. Thomas Aquinas, and it’s harder than I thought


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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 01/28/22

The great philosopher shows the undeniable connection between quiet listening and deep thinking. 

Everybody loves a good comeback, and some of the best have come down to us through history. One of my favorites was actually said on behalf of someone else: St. Albert the Great defending St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas was a student at the university where St. Albert taught, and Aquinas had picked up a rather unfortunate reputation. He was extraordinarily quiet, not only in classes and debates but even during leisure time. Because of his notable silence and tall, hulking figure, some of the other students derided him with the nickname “the Dumb Ox.” 

When St. Albert heard of this, he wryly replied, “You call him a Dumb Ox; I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowings will fill the world.”

His words proved prophetic. Indeed, Aquinas went on to become one of the most brilliant writers and philosophers the world has ever known.

Listening and thinking go together

When I shared this story with my children recently, we were struck by St. Thomas’ silence. This legendary genius was remarkably and unusually quiet. 

He wasn’t quiet because he was foolish or lazy; quite the opposite. He was a man of rare wisdom and work ethic. The reality is that St. Thomas was a genuinely great listener.  

There is something powerful about such silence: In his case, it revealed his practiced habit of thoughtful reflection. He was listening and thinking about what he heard instead of blurting out every thought that crossed his mind. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of silently listening, since I recently finished a fascinating book,You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. It’s an illuminating and often humorous deep dive into “why we’re not listening, what it’s doing to us, and how we can reverse the trend.” 

I’ve thought a lot about a point Murphy makes several times: Silently listening is the best way to really learn and understand. In fact, silence is unexpectedly powerful. As she said in an interview about the book,

We’re taught that the very image of power today is somebody prowling around on a stage: orating from behind a podium, someone mic’d up giving a TED talk or a commencement speech. But, listening is actually the more powerful position in communication. You learn when you listen. It’s how we connect. It’s how we cooperate. It’s how we develop creative ideas. It’s how we understand. It’s how we divine truth and detect deceit. That’s where the power lies. Listening is the more powerful position in general. You are not gaining anything when you’re talking, you’re not gathering intelligence when you’re talking. And listening teaches you how to actually talk because you learn other people’s level of understanding – you learn what will persuade them. You know what their tender points are. You learn what you should stay away from, or what’s really going to hit home.

Becoming a better listener

While reading You’re Not Listening, it began to dawn on me that I’m not always a great listener. (“Oh, you just noticed?” my husband quipped.) 

I struggle especially with what Murphy calls “giving support responses instead of “shift responses.” A “shift response” changes the topic to yourself, while a “support response” asks questions to elucidate understanding about the other person’s point of view. For example, 

Shift Response

Mary: I’m so busy right now.

Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.

Support Response

Mary: I’m so busy right now.

Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?

I began to wonder what I’ve missed out on by not listening very well. My natural urge is talking to fill up silence. (Like most Americans, I have a low tolerance for uncomfortable silences.)

St. Thomas Aquinas shows the undeniable connection between quiet listening and deep thinking. And since finishing You’re Not Listening, I’ve been trying to be more like Aquinas. I’ve been trying to let silences hang for a few beats. I’ve been trying to listen carefully, really take in what I’m hearing, reflect, and ask thoughtful follow-up questions.

Embracing silence has been harder than I expected. More than once, I’ve had to backtrack: “Oh, you’re having a hard day? Me too! Oh, wait … no … let me rephrase that … Tell me, what’s been hard about your day?” 

But since I started doing it, I’ve noticed that I’m having better and deeper discussions. I’ve reached some breakthrough moments in conversations that I don’t think would have happened before. 

It’s not automatic, and it takes a little more thought. I’m definitely still a “good listening” work in progress. But I’m going to keep at it.

Here’s hoping that by imitating the famed silence of “the Angelic Doctor,” I can also imitate a tiny fraction of his wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

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