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Krista Tippett on the art of listening and Becoming Wise

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Most people wouldn’t put “listening” down as a skill on their resume, but that is a major part of what has made Krista Tippett successful. The Peabody Award-winning host of On Being has interviewed insightful people of all backgrounds, including spiritual leaders, scientists, authors, and musicians. The common thread throughout her one-on-one conversations is her ability to be fully present and open to learning from experiences vastly different from her own.

It is those conversations, and the lessons learned from them, that inform Tippett’s new book, Becoming Wise. Divided into chapters titled "Words," "Flesh," "Love," "Faith," and "Hope," the Oklahoma-raised, long-time resident of Minnesota shares how these facets of life, and the people around us, teach us to be wise.

Tippett spoke to City Pages in anticipation of a discussion about the book with Kerri Miller at the Fitzgerald Theater on Tuesday.

City Pages: How do you cultivate wisdom? Is it a result of experience, age, or some combination of other factors?

Krista Tippett: I don’t think everybody gets wise; some people just get old. I don’t think it’s only a quality that’s available to people who’ve lived eight decades. I think wisdom is available in different chapters of life. There is a particular wisdom that children bring into our lives. There’s a beautiful part of wisdom that wells up in people in their teens and 20s: an urgency, an ability to see clearly and to see the world whole. We need all of those kinds of wisdom and expression of it.

CP: You listen for a living, but you also ask good questions. How do you balance those roles? Is one more important than the other?

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KT: They’re both critically important. Listening is a basic social art that I think we have to start to practice and learn again. Wisdom is not just about being quiet; it’s about being present. It’s about bringing a real curiosity into the conversation and a willingness to be surprised by the other person. I think it’s from that kind of presence that really good questions emerge, questions that truly want to learn something.

We have a lot of examples in our public life of questions that aren’t really questions, that are questions that are more about what the questioner wants or believes. I think a simplistic question elicits a simplistic answer. If you get a combative question or an inflammatory question, it’s hard to transcend that. It’s hard to meet it with anything but a combative answer. But we can ask generous questions. We can ask questions that invite searching and draw out the dignity in others. We take a lot of power in our hands when we become questioners.

CP: What role do listening, asking questions, and being curious play in combating alienation and isolation brought on by the internet and our technology use?

KT: I take the view that our technology is amazing and terrifying, but essentially the internet is a new canvas for the same old human condition.

The technology we have now has the capacity to amplify everything about us in ways we couldn’t have imagined before. It can amplify the bad, it can amplify the good. We have to keep remembering that the internet is in its infancy, and we are the grown-ups in the room. It is up to us to decide to shape technology to human purposes. 

CP: How do you listen and stay receptive to someone you don’t agree with or who is very hateful, like Donald Trump?

KT: I don’t think being a good listener means you have to stay open and receptive to hatred. You don’t. We have to be wise in any given situation. Sometimes being present, or even being caring, is going to mean pulling back.

With the Trump phenomenon, what I’m trying to stay attentive to is not necessarily the hateful things he says. I want to be present to this really raw human fear and pain that is turning out in those assemblies, that is really ready for someone to say, “I can tell you what the problems are. I can tell you what the solutions are. And by the way, here’s the enemy.”

What we are facing is a huge amount of uncertainty that is really unsettling for human beings who feel vulnerable and captive to it.

CP: You’re ultimately hopeful at the end of the book. What is it about humanity — and millennials in particular — that makes you feel that way?

KT: “Millennials” is a huge swath of people and it has every conceivable expression of humanity, but what I love about many of the millennials I talk to and know is there’s a realism that is a contrast to the kind of idealism that came out of the 1960s and then bred cynicism and resignation. I think this generation has an imagination about human wholeness that is new. This generation understands there’s no “out there” without what’s inside.

I look at the language that millennials have brought into our common vocabulary of transparency, authenticity, and integrity. I think that they’re allergic to a lot of the hypocrisy of previous generations. I do have a lot of faith that upcoming generations are going to be able to imagine and embody new realities that we can’t quite imagine now.

CP: Kerri Miller is going to be interviewing you at the Fitzgerald. What do you prefer: interviewing or being interviewed?

KT: Obviously, I’m an interviewer for a living, so I do that a lot. I love that. That’s part of my identity. But there’s something quite relaxing for me on being on the other side of it. [Laughs] I think more than outsiders might realize, when you’re doing the interviewing, on the one hand you’re not the person giving the answers but you have so much more control in crafting how it goes. And I do these great, big, 90-minute in-depth interviews where I’ve read everything somebody’s written, so I find it a bit of a relief to be on the other side of the microphone. Kerri is such a great interviewer, I will happily deliver myself into her hands.

CP: Who is on your wish list for interviewees?

KT: We’ve got this long list I started about 12 years ago and we’re always adding to it. We cross people off it, too. Somebody I’m trying to get this year is Jane Goodall.

One thing I talk about in the book is the fact that a lot of the people who are changing the world and are the wisest are below the radar and in the margins, because they’re getting on with the work. Because they have a certain humility, they’re not throwing themselves in front of microphones or cameras. I keep finding the most amazing people out there and I love discovering new voices.

I certainly have interviewed some big names and big spiritual figures — Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh — but I just as much love finding people who are so wise and bringing so much beauty into the world. I can’t wait to see who we discover in the next few months.

IF YOU GO:

The Thread Live with Krista Tippett: Hosted by Kerri Miller

Fitzgerald Theater

7 p.m. Tuesday, April 5

$25-$50