(This is my editorial from the latest issue of The Free Kansan.)
Twenty years ago I was the owner of a small business. Then and now, when people hear about that they will ask me two questions: What did I sell? Where was the store?
That seems appropriate. It’s all they really want to know, and it is enough to satisfy a superficial curiosity.
One of he best conversationalists I have ever known was a minister by the name of Julian. I never heard him deliver a sermon; he was long retired by the time I met him. And now, as the Bible puts it, he sleeps with his fathers. Our acquaintance lasted a short time, really.
He and his wife and I belonged to a group that went to lunch together occasionally. The group was big enough that we could not all talk together, so conversation naturally and conveniently broke into small groups. At one lunch, I was seated close to Julian and his wife at the end of the table.
Julian found out I had recently closed my store, and he asked me the expected questions about location and type of merchandise. Then after sitting quietly for a few moments he asked, “So, how many customers would you say you had in the store in a typical day?” Nobody had ever asked me that before, and I had to think for a minute before answering. “How did you display the merchandise?” was his next question. “Was it in straight rows like a drugstore, or scattered around the store?” “Did many people ask for merchandise you didn’t carry?” “Were your customers the people who would use the merchandise themselves, or were they buying for someone else?”
Every time I answered, Julian would absorb the information carefully. He reminded me of a student who has just been exposed to the academic subject that will become his life’s passion. By the time we finished lunch, I do be believe Julian knew pretty much what it had been like to be Sharon waiting on customers in Senior Ease, what the store looked like, what my conversations with my customers sounded like.
It wasn’t that Julian wanted to own a store that catered to the needs of the elderly. I strongly suspect that Julian treated all conversations that way. He was simply interested in the experiences of anyone with whom he was talking.
The intriguing part of Julian’s conversational technique, of course, is that at the end of that lunch, I felt like the most interesting person on earth. For an hour, I had been the sole focus of the attention of this intelligent and caring man. He didn’t interrupt me with tales of his own experiences, he did not criticize my business decisions, he did not make suggestions about what I could have done differently to have made the business a success.
Indeed, his probing questions sometimes made me think about my business in ways I had not done before. And if he had wanted to critique my management skills, by the time lunch was over I would have not only listened avidly, I would have loved him for it.
Libertarians have a reputation for arguing rather than conversing, for lecturing rather than listening. As convinced as we are that our ideas are right, it is easy to become exasperated with those who just can’t see things our way. And it’s unreasonable to expect most people to have Julian’s patience and “people skills.” But sometimes I wonder what would happen if more Libertarians listened more carefully, asked caring questions, and made a real effort to help others think carefully about their own positions. Maybe we could lead them gently toward liberty rather than hitting them over the head with it.