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How one man learned to truly listen instead of mansplaining

For someone who regularly interviewed people in his job, it took Stuart Watson decades to realize he was not a good listener. Here’s his story of how he moved from mansplaining to man-listening — particularly to women.

“You’re a pompous ass,” my boss said after enduring another one of my rants in our morning staff meeting. I laughed. He was right. My thought was, “And your point is … ?” 

His point, and the point, was that my years of relentless mansplaining not only irritated and alienated my colleagues, family and complete strangers — it didn’t work for me, either. All talk and no listening does not work toward my own self interest. But it took me decades to learn this. 

I spent an entire career talking. I was an investigative reporter in local TV news for over 30 years. Now I have launched a new career, creating a communications company devoted to listening — especially to women. 

The change didn’t come after that abrupt conversation with my boss. It came after I finally listened to my wife. 

I had taken one of those personality profile tests but this one evaluated communications styles. It’s called the DiSC Assessment. Maybe you’ve taken it. After taking it, I keyed on one particular phrase in my 60-plus page report. It said I demonstrated an “excellent empathic listening style.” 

Wow. Look at me. 

I made the mistake of sharing this evaluation with my wife. She is the single most influential person in my life. We’ve been together more than 40 years. We have four kids together. 

She was unimpressed. She didn’t care what the assessment concluded. She knew better. “Sweetheart,” she said. “You are not an empathic listener.” I gotta admit, that stung. 

Stuart Watson and Lorraine Jivoff, his wife, met in 1980 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Kats Smith Barry)

She said I was particularly dismissive of women. A woman and a man could deliver identical messages — same words, same emphasis, same context, and I would pay attention to the man and discount the woman. That’s a problem. 

I had a mental block against what she was telling me, and a big part of this block came from my self-assessment that I was a superb listener — that I was not one of those Neanderthal cavemen dragging women around by the hair. My biggest obstacle to progress in this regard was all the evidence I kept at the ready to prove my wife wrong. 

I have three daughters, two sisters and had two mother figures — a birth mother and an adopted mom. I’d been outnumbered on three sides by generations of strong women. I had remained married to the same powerful woman for the better part of four decades. If I was that terrible of a listener, I don’t think that they’d spend as much time in conversation with me as they do. Surely — if true — I would have known this about myself before now. 

Then there was my professional career. I’d won 10 Emmys, three Peabody awards, had a journalism fellowship at Harvard. If I was such a horrible listener, how could I be such a good journalist? 

I decided to start recording audio of my one-on-one conversations with women, beginning with friends and family who played along. I’d prove to my wife once and for all what a great listener I was — especially of women. 

I was wrong. 

In dozens of interviews over the course of three years, I interrupted, talked over, argued and just plain old mansplained again and again. My wife was right. It was right there on the tape. 

I had these tapes transcribed by humans (usually women) — not the cheaper automated transcription. Whenever two people talked at once, the transcriptionist made a one-word notation: CROSSTALK. The poor woman had to back up the tape and try to decipher who was saying what for the purpose of the record. It was embarrassing. 

I could hit “find” and search for the word “crosstalk” and find just how many times in a single hour of conversation I had interrupted and talked over the woman who was kind enough to give me her time for my little experiment. It was a clear metric of my misogyny. I was appalled. 

I found that when I listened intently and asked open-ended questions, I discovered amazing stories I had never heard before — even from some of my oldest friends. Stories of dealing with cancer, absent fathers, addiction, and a harrowing amount of sexual abuse. I detected a theme: resilient women facing overwhelming trauma and yet somehow healing and moving from mere surviving to thriving. They told me powerful and inspirational stories of resilience and the human spirit. They give me hope in bleak times.

Now when I ask my wife point blank if she thinks I’m a good listener, she says, ”Not really.” Am I at least a better listener than I was? Yes, she concedes, I’ve gotten better. It’s a long journey from mansplaining to man-listening. But it’s totally worth it. I may still be a bit of a pompous ass. But I know one thing: it’s in my own best interest to listen.

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I Live It

I have been over-talked many times and have gone from giving my voice away to claiming it. Sometimes, it makes other people uncomfortable, but I'm done apologizing for equity.

Stuart Watson

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