Click and Clack, hosts of Car Talk on NPR, have an uncanny knack for translating odd, funny noises made by vehicles into credible car repair recommendations.
Last weekend, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as the Tappet Brothers, were chatting up a caller who had developed a chronic pain in his thumb because of an uncooperative gearshift on his Jeep Comanche. The brothers teased the caller, who described himself as the "outside man" for a Memphis law firm.
But they couldn't diagnose what was wrong until the caller impersonated the sound when he shifts gears. When they heard the weird whirring noise, Click and Clack knew instantly what the problem was.
They proved the power of attentive listening.
An alert homeowner in Watertown, Massachusetts proved how important it is to be a keen observer when he noticed blood on the canvass covering his boat in his backyard. He peeked in, saw a body and immediately alerted the police. The body turned out to be the at-large second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing and the object of an intensive, day-long manhunt.
That tip helped law enforcement capture the suspect alive and end a metropolitan lock-down that made greater Boston seem like a war zone instead of an iconic American city.
Listening and observing don't require degrees from MIT, though coincidentally the Magliozzis both have degrees from MIT. These are skills anyone can develop and hone. They are essential to effective communications, especially when you are trying to manage a contentious public issue.
Hearing people out, even when they are loud and rude, can tone down a conversation. Listening for points of agreement or opportunities to resolve disagreements can generate respect and lead, many times, to compromise.
The same is true for keen observation. It is not enough to see what is going on, you need to understand what is going on - as Sherlock Holmes routinely preached to his trusted friend, Dr. Watson. "You see, but you do not observe," Holmes said, uncovering the secret of his incredible deductive skills.
Perhaps no one can equal the powers of perception bequeathed to Sherlock Holmes, but everyone can be more attentive to the world walking, talking, crawling, crying and buzzing around them. Instead of thinking of it all as noise and motion, we need to discern what is generating the noise and prompting the motion, which unlocks the visible secrets of cause and effect and of motivation and intent.
Like effective listening, keen observation can open your eyes to what is behind a neighborhood complaint or the concerns of an activist group. This knowledge may not make a solution any easier, but it can direct you to the place you need to go to find a solution.
Hearing and sight are great gifts. They deserve our full attention.