The Importance of Listening, Part 2: Konrad Kellen – A Gifted Listener

One of the best examples of a truly gifted listener is Konrad Kellen.  Now this is not specific to mental health however, it does show the power of listening and how you filter the information you are given.

During the Vietnam War, Kellen heard something that should have changed the course of history.  It didn’t because he wasn’t listened to.

In the early part of the war the Pentagon created the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project; it was started by a man named Leon Goure, who would turn out to be Kellen’s nemesis.

Rolling Thunder

The US Air Force was bombing North Vietnam because they wanted to stop them supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam led by the Viet Cong.  In just the first bombing campaign of the war, ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the US dropped as many bombs on Vietnam as the RAF dropped on Germany throughout World War II.

The idea was to break the will of the North Vietnamese, but the problem was that the Pentagon knew nothing about the North Vietnamese, their culture, history or language; to them it was just a speck in the world.

The project’s job was to go through interviews with captured Viet Cong guerrillas (about 61,000 pages of transcripts) summarise and analyse them.

Goure took the analyses and concluded that; the Viet Cong were utterly demoralised, they were about to give up, and if pushed a little bit more they would give up.  Goure was supposedly the only man who knew the enemy, and so his conclusions were taken very seriously.  Everyone believed what Goure said, with only one exception; Konrad Kellen, he reached the opposite conclusions.

Kellen’s rethinking began with a memorable interview with a Viet Cong Captain; early in the interview he was asked if he thought the Viet Cong could win the war, and he answered no.  Pages later he was asked if he thought the US could win the war, and he answered no.

The second answer profoundly changes the meaning of the first answer; the captain did not think in terms of winning or losing at all.  An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.

So why did Kellen see this and not Goure?  Goure was someone who filtered what he heard through his own biases; he felt that the US was the most powerful country in the history of the world; North Vietnam was a speck that had barely entered the Industrial Revolution.

Vietnam War

Goure could not believe that anyone could stand up to the bombardment, so he read the first answer in the interview and then stopped listening.

Kellen stood up and said that Goure was wrong, that the Viet Cong were not giving up, were not demoralised, and that it was not a battle that the US could win, not today, tomorrow and not the day after tomorrow. The rest, as they say is history.

Listening is hard because the more you listen, the more unsettling the world becomes.  It’s a lot easier just to place your hands over your ears and not listen at all.  This can be true when dealing with Mental Health which even now is still a taboo subject to many people, as is illness in general.

The example of Kellen and Goure is relevant because it shows the importance of listening to everything someone has to say, so that you get a clear picture, rather than focusing on the first thing they tell you, or making them feel that they have to keep repeating themselves in order to be understood.

Konrad Kellen Source Material – BBC Website News Magazine – July 2013

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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