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Taking time to listen is a good investment

June 26, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Every time I ask someone "What's new?" their answer is almost always "Not much."

But if I keep listening in a way that shows that person that I really care about what they're saying, they will invariably remember something that's important and often newsworthy.

Listening is something we don't seem to do enough of in Washington County. By listening I don't mean just keeping quiet while someone else is talking. We've all had those conversations in which we knew the person we were talking to was not really listening, but just enduring our remarks while he waited for his turn.

And most people in the newspaper business can tell you about elected officals who are so certain they're correct that they're impervious to new information. They'll give it a hearing, but the facts just run off, like grease flowing off a Teflon frying pan.

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I thought about all of this recently after a conversation I had with a local person who has been involved for years in efforts to better the community. So much of the inter-governmental turmoil that happens here, he said, takes place because elected officials don't bother to talk to those who would be affected, or who might want to offer some input, before they take action.

Mayor William Breichner's effort to rename Memorial Boulevard for Willie Mays was a sincere attempt to turn something ugly from the city's past into something good for its future. As everyone knows, it didn't turn out that way, though it might have if city officials had spent some time talking to more citizens before deciding to act.

More recently, the Washington County Board of Education's decision to bring 10 foreign teachers here to fill slots in the local system is another example of a good idea that has drawn some sour reactions.

Why is it a good idea? Because some of them will fill positions in subjects such as foreign languages in which there are far fewer home-grown teachers available. Some teachers from South America will also provide role models for a growing population of Hispanic students. And finally, it's only a three-year deal. Those slots will open up again, giving local people a chance to fill them.

So why was there such an adverse reaction to the notion? Because it's not hard to find a local person whose child majored in education, but who couldn't get a job with the local system. I heard three such stories last week.

That doesn't mean that these locally-raised would-be teachers were qualified in subjects where there is a need, such as foreign languages or math. But to that person's family, it doesn't matter. What they hear is that their child isn't getting a job while someone from another country, who has never been a taxpayer here, will get a position.

The best thing school officials could do at this point is to seek out the disgruntled and listen to their objections. It may not be possible to do what citizens would like, but in my experience, people feel much better after someone has listened to their complaint. If you can offer an apology for not consulting them in advance, it goes even better.

On of the best local examples of good listening locally is the 2-plus-2 committee, which consists of two Washington County Commissioners and two members of the Hagerstown City Council.

When the meetings began, city officials were suspicious because Hagerstown wasn't getting a share of some new fees on construction. But after some discussion, city officials realized that a large portion of that money would go to renovate schools. And some of the oldest and most in need of renovation are in the city, where the success or failure of revitalization will depend on convincing people with disposable income that city schools are the equal of those in the suburbs.

More such efforts are needed. At their post-legislative breakfast meeting, the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly said that the county commissioners had to work out a better way of communicating their desires as a body to them. Delegates said that during the session, they got plenty of e-mails from the commissioners, but it often wasn't clear who was offering an individual view and who was speaking for the county board.

Of course, there are some people who won't be satisfied no matter how much "ear time" you give them or how many alternatives you offer.

Dr. Eric Berne identified this phenomenon in his 1964 book, "Games People Play." The book describes how people interact with each other socially, sometimes in ways that have been passed down through families for several generations.

One of those ways or games was "Why don't you...Yes, but," in which every suggestion made is met with another objection designed to justify not changing one's behavior.

That said, all of Washington County's elected officials can do better and should, and not just because being a good listener is the polite thing to do. The time and money wasted because officials are not listening properly are not imaginary, but real commodities needed for other important projects.

For example, what if local officials had listened more carefully to the warnings of a coming surge in the population? Possibly we might not have so many children learning in portable classrooms and so many cars stacked up during rush hour at intersections that will be vital in getting to the new Washington County Hospital at Robinwood.

And if the warnings had been wrong? Listening would still have been the right thing to do, because giving a hearing to those concerned about the county's future is never a waste of time.

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