Ruth Bass: The art of listening, real-time talk are endangered in the new normal

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RICHMOND — Back to college for a reunion many years ago, I found myself riding through Maine in one of the original Volkswagen beetles with an old friend. He was driving, it was dark, and I had always loved conversations in the car — a place where (if the radio wasn't rocking) the back and forth would be quick and thoughtful and without distractions. It was such a nice evening that I was starting to think it would be fun to convert this friendship into a dating relationship. And then I asked a question.

He didn't answer. I rephrased and asked again. "Sorry," he said. "I wasn't really listening to what you were saying, just to the sound of your voice." Crossed him off my list of potential targets for dates. Instantly.

Perhaps lots of people weren't listening back then, but it seems more fail to listen now. You see their faces glaze over when someone else is talking, and you know they would fail a quiz on the conversation. Sometimes they are betrayed when they ask a question that's already been answered. Perhaps texting and emails have hurt listening just because so many people do one or the other instead of having a real-time talk. In any case, experts say it's a growing problem — in personal relationships, in employer/employee relationships, in business owner/customer relationships, in parent/child relationships. In Washington, we've watched not listening become the new normal.

We have a lot of non-listening going on around here as the public discussion of the Berkshire Museum's future goes into its third month. The museum's board would no doubt say that those who are chagrined at the idea of selling the art are not listening to their vision of the future. The partial answer to that is that the vision is not at the moment the worrisome thing. Many of those who oppose the fundraising plan have not come out against the multimillion-dollar renovation. Their sole concern is the irreversible sale of museum treasures.

It is hard to accept that the director and board are listening to their public when they ignore the outcry of so many, including the head of the Norman Rockwell Museum, the three sons of Norman Rockwell and, now, this past week, the Massachusetts Cultural Council. That council has given more than a million dollars to the museum in the past decade but is withholding its funding for the museum for fiscal year 2018 until the Massachusetts attorney general's office completes its review of the museum plans.

It's never too late to start listening. Quite a few calm and knowledgeable people have joined the general public in protesting the sale of works including those by Rockwell, St. Gaudens, Alexander Calder, Bierstadt, Inness, Bouguereau and Church. Several fairly neutral experts have challenged the idea that the museum is about to go down the tubes financially. Once the board made it clear that the deficits have been real off and on for years, it was valid to ask two questions: What was management doing about those deficits and why didn't the board speak up and ask for the public's help. That's what The Mount did — successfully.

It's disturbing that the board of a nonprofit, community-invested museum could do the opposite: Not fundraise, not disclose the debt. But lack of transparency makes people prickle, especially when the museum initially didn't want to list what they were selling. Because they wanted to avoid listening to an uproar, apparently. It didn't really take Anita Walker of the Massachusetts Cultural Council to point out that selling the artworks undermines trust.

This is a group that didn't listen when offered a million dollars to put their plans on hold and allow more time for discussion and working things out. Instead, they shunned the money (what's the hurry?) and hired some public relations experts to improve their communications with the Berkshires. It's unfortunate we weren't allowed to listen sooner.

Ruth Bass tries to listen in Richmond. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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