The Compassionate Ratio

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I’m not sure what the golden ratio between speaking and listening is. As most people who’ve crossed paths with me would surely attest to, I err on the side of talking too much. Every conversation and circumstance is unique, and recognizing when you should share your thoughts versus listening to other’s is nothing short of an art. It involves honing in on subtle cues and emotions from all parties involved. Empathy as well as genuine attention. A talent I see on display each and every day, practiced by none other than the guy who sleeps five feet away from me every night.

I first met Matt Markman in the summer of 2015. We had found one another on Facebook while searching for a freshmen roommates. After some comprehensive background checks, we decided to live together (breaking the hearts of more than a couple roommate-rejects), and met up at a café before the year started to kick off the friend-building process. We were there for a couple hours, and upon leaving I found myself in a particularly cheery mood. I walked away with a solid foundational understanding of Matt Markman (he’s a nerd, minus the nerdy, intensely curious, and exceedingly active), but there was something beyond that affecting my mood. I felt overwhelmingly satisfied with myself. I love to share ideas and stories, but there is little gratification in doing those things with an unengaged audience. You might as well be speaking to a brick wall. In my time with Matt, however, I felt thoroughly engaged. I spoke about the generic things, such as my musical and television preferences, as well as the various projects I was working on (if you’re on this website you are probably aware of them), and at the end of it all, walked away with the sense that he had genuinely been interested in me. In an incredibly subtle way, Matt had left me feeling as if I, a near-stranger at the time, was someone immensely important to him. It was an awesome sensation to say the least.

How did Matt master this art? Surely there are more reasons than can easily be enumerated. However, after living with him for nearly a year, there are a few things I have picked up on. When speaking with him, he acknowledges you with his eyes. I do not mean to say he just looks you in the eye; anyone can do that. No, when Matt talks to someone, he engages them completely. The sort of razor-focus that has stopped me in the middle of sentence before: I’m going on and on about some opinion of mine (this happens quite often in the dorm), ranting to such an extent that my original point begins to fade, when I notice Matt’s gaze. It is full and aware, failing to miss nothing. I find myself at a loss for words, realizing that I was hardly saying anything in the first place. His attention is powerful to say the least.

Beyond his facial expressions (and impeccable head nods), Matt’s talent extends to the articulation of his points with brilliant conciseness. When analyzing his knack for listening, it’s easy to forget that he is equally as effective at communicating. Where I may favor a lengthy monologue (as I’m wont to do before bed most nights in the dorm), he opts to inject bits of wisdom into each conversation right when he deems it most applicable. This discernment of the ratio between speaking and listening enables Matt to leave those he engages with feeling as though their thoughts were heard, while also not having dominated the talk.

I’ve focused on Matt’s dialogue skills here, but that’s not to overlook his plethora of other gifts. Besides being an outstanding student who’s always down to try new things, he is also a deeply caring human being. The guy who can’t pass a homeless man without slipping him some cash. The friend that pays the parking ticket because his companions lacked the cash, and is too nice to heckle them for repayment. The roommate who refuses to complain when my alarm wakes him up, even going as far as to say it’s better because it forces him to get an extra-early start. The student who dreams of starting businesses to help improve the plights of others around the world. It is Matt’s empathy and genuine concern for his fellow human beings that enables him to be such a brilliant conversationalist. To master the (very difficult) ratio of when to open your mouth vs keep it shut. A ratio learned best through compassion for other people. It’s not a charade—Matt listens with attentive ears because he truly wants to know who you are, what you want, and perhaps more than anything else, how he can help you.

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