I was born at a very young age and...bud um boom...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Friendship and "Air time"

I recently have had contact with an old drum teacher acquaintance of mine. He was a good teacher and a fine player. I studied with him for a few years back in the early sixties. Since I was the student and he was the teacher, our implicit agreement during those years was that I listened while he did the talking. We have had occasional contact over the years and recently he and I have had a few phone conversations. What I find interesting about our recent phone calls is that it is clear that he is still operating under the old assumption that he will get all or almost all of the “air time” when we speak.

For example, a year or so ago I mailed him a CD of an old tape I had made with a trio I used to work with. We were backing a name singer and I thought the tape had some very nice moments. He never responded to the mailing and so I never knew what he thought about it or even if he had received it. Then, one day during some down time he had at his job, he called me up to chat and he pretty much talked non-stop for 45 minutes. Just before we got off the phone I asked him: “Incidentally, did you ever get the CD I sent you?” He replied: “Yes, I did.” I asked: “How’d you like it?” He said: “It was nice.” Since he volunteered no additional information, I let it drop and we ended our phone conversation.

Then, a month or so later he mailed me a CD of a tape he had made with a big band back in the sixties. About a week after I received the CD he called and asked if I had gotten it. I said that I had. He asked me what I thought of the tape. As an experiment, to see how he would respond, I said simply: “It was good.” He waited for me to volunteer more and when I did not, he said, more aggressively: “That’s it? What do you think about my playing on the tape?” I smiled to myself at his insistence but decided to be nice; and so I spent the next fifteen minutes analyzing his playing in detail and describing all those things about it that I liked. It was not difficult to do because he is a good player and it was an enjoyable recording. Finally, the conversation came to an end and he hung up, satisfied that he had heard all he was going to hear about his CD.

The sad thing about this little sequence of events is that my old drum teacher's lack of awareness about sharing airtime is not unusual. Many people get stuck at the acquaintance level and do not get to the next level of friendship for the same reason. Real friends give each other an opportunity for equal air time; and this includes the gift of genuine interest in each others endeavors. When one person sets up an unequal “air time” arrangement by doing all the talking the imbalance becomes problematic.

Ron, a musician friend of mine who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, describes his occasional telephone exchanges with a mutual acquaintance of ours who does not listen but loves to talk: “When he calls, I get a pillow, prop the phone on it, plop down with my ear next to it and get ready for a long listening siege. Then, periodically he asks me what I’m up to and after I give him one piece of information, it triggers something else he wants to talk about and he’s off again and I listen for another half hour. It’s a huge drag.” Not surprisingly, our mutual friend has difficulty making and keeping friends. This is understandable, because most people are not willing to pay the price of doing all the listening and getting no air time. We all need to get our chance to talk and to feel like our friends are interested.

An embarrassing personal example of not giving air time occurred one morning in my office with a patient. I had gotten into the habit of drinking two large mugs of very strong coffee with sugar on my hour long drive into my office in Denver. One morning, my first patient, a very bright and assertive business executive, after listening to me expound non-stop for his entire psychotherapy hour, asked me, “So, Doctor C., are you going to pay me now or should I just bill you?” Confused, I said, “I don’t understand. What do you mean?” He said, “You talked non-stop for this entire hour so I assume it must have been therapeutic for you. Do you want to pay me now or should I bill you?” Embarrassed, I immediately apologized and said, “I’m so sorry–it must be the coffee. Naturally, I will not charge you for this hour.” He laughed and said, “You were very interesting, but you might want to cut back a mug or two.” Fortunately, he was a very accepting man and overlooked his lack of air time, chalking it up to my caffeine intoxication.

The “Ten minute rule”
I have a friend who is one of the best listeners and communicators I know. He was the dean of music at a large university and is an accomplished conductor. I often inquire about conducting because he is so articulate and insightful about this fascinating endeavor. I have noticed that he observes what I call the “ten minute rule.” He will speak freely in response to my open ended questions for about ten minutes and then he will try to shift the focus of the conversation back to me. Being a sensitive man, he assumes that I would also like some air time. If I do not want the air time, I just reassure him that I want to hear more about conducting; he is then usually comfortable discussing it further.

Although he is a fascinating guy, and in my opinion he does not have to do a ten minute check with me, I think it is a good rule of thumb when you are having a discussion with friends. Sometimes the topics we are talking about are only of limited interest to our friends and so periodically giving them the opportunity to change topics or to get some air time by changing the focus back to them is generally a good thing to do.

And so, some final words about my drum teacher acquaintance: What is the effect on me of his poor ability to inquire or show interest? Since I have been relegated to the role of listener-audience, I do not have as much fun talking with him as I do with friends who inquire. Like everyone, I would like to think that I also have things to say that are of interest. When I feel that I am not being listened to or that there is no opportunity for me to get at least some air time I become bored. Having said all this, I think my old drum teacher is a good guy with a good heart. He has simply not learned to share air time.


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