Years ago I learned that there are two ways to tell a story. One way reveals something the story teller wishes to communicate. The other way hides something that the story teller knows. The most interesting stories combine some of each, what is revealed and what remains hidden. Once I knew this, it changed the way that I communicate, and it changed the way that I listen.
Last week there was a hearing in Congress. Whistleblowers were coming to the nation’s capital. When an individual is introduced with the whistleblower label, it says something even before he speaks. It says that he has something to reveal. It's up to you to consider whether he also has something to hide.
There are techniques that anyone can use to become a more active listener. Rather than explain, let’s proceed to my subject, Gregory Hicks. Mr. Hicks was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya on September 11, 2012. He was the State Department’s ranking diplomat in Libya, under the Ambassador, Chris Stevens. On September 11, 2012, Ambassador Stevens wasn’t at the Tripoli Embassy. He had gone to Benghazi, 600 miles east of Tripoli, to visit the American compound there.
Here’s what Hicks said about that day:
As I remember September 11, 2012, it was a routine day at our embassy, until we saw the news about Cairo. And I remember sending a text message to Ambassador Stevens saying, "Chris, are you aware of what's going on in Cairo?"
And he said no. So I told him in another text that the [Cairo] embassy had been stormed, and they were trying to tear down our flag. And he said, "Thanks very much."
And, you know, then I went on with business, closed the day, and I went back to my villa and was relaxing, watching a television show that I particularly like. And at 9:45 p.m. the RSO, John Martinec, ran into my villa yelling, "Greg! Greg! The consulate's under attack."
And I stood up and reached for my phone because I had inkling or thought that perhaps the ambassador had tried to call me to relay the same message. And I found two missed calls on the phone, one from the ambassador's phone and one from a phone number I didn't recognize. And I punched the phone number I didn't recognize, and I got the ambassador on the other end. And he said, "Greg, we're under attack."
And I was walking out of the villa, on my way to the Tactical Operations Center, because I knew we would all have to gather there to mobilize or try to mobilize a response. And it was also a bad cell phone night in Tripoli. Connections were weak. And I said, "OK," and the line cut.
Mr. Hicks goes on to describe his emotional and frantic efforts to get help to the Benghazi compound but it was already too late. If the House committee’s report is accurate, the attack had just begun when Hicks heard Stevens’ voice and Stevens would be dead within the next 15 minutes.
Let’s review Hicks story from the beginning.
The day began normally until he learned of the angry mob attack at the Cairo Embassy. He texted Stevens. The messages were terse and perfunctory. Hicks expressed no concern for the safety of personnel in Benghazi, he indicated no interest in the situation there, and he offered no help. Hicks and Stevens didn’t discuss contingency plans. What was the purpose of texting in the first place? If something is missing here, cell phone records might fill it in. It’s important because there was a missed opportunity to send reinforcements at this point in Hicks’s story.
The next 2 ½ hours were crucial. While Hicks was relaxing and watching his favorite TV show and ignoring the incoming calls from Stevens, the crowd was beginning to appear at the compound in Benghazi. These were the moments that the House Committee insists were pivotal and if Stevens had any impression about the gathering crowd or what motivated them we won’t find out from Hicks because he was curled up in his Snuggie watching TV. This was the second missed opportunity when a security team could have been sent.
Hicks called one of the two missed numbers on his cell phone, but why did he choose the number he didn’t recognize instead of the Ambassador’s number? He still reached Stevens and he says the line went dead before he had a chance to learn anything more than the essential fact. The compound was under attack. Dropped calls at inopportune moments are familiar. What’s odd is Hicks’s reference to a “bad cell phone night in Tripoli.” He doesn’t consider the possibility that something happened on the Benghazi end of the call to cause the interruption.
The point of active listening isn’t to jump to a conclusion. It simply indicates points in a story where there is weakness that should be examined further.
As a postscript, I have another line I noted in Hicks’s story that perplexed me. As an active listener, I have to know when I’m reading in something that just isn’t there. I wasn’t sure if this item gives away more than the story teller intended or if it was an interpretation error on my part. My opinion was swayed when I happened to learn from another Kossack that Ambassador Chris Stevens was gay. It was an odd coincidence that this Kossack appeared with something to say about Stevens, without knowing that I was writing this piece at that moment. Whether Stevens was gay isn’t something I’d consider striking on its own. It was what I noticed in Hicks’s testimony that I was questioning.
Hicks had two missed calls on his cell phone. He called the number he didn’t recognize and he reached Stevens. Later he asked one of the Tripoli Tactical Operations Direct Support agents whose number it was on his cell phone.
“And he said, "Oh, that's Scott Wickland's telephone. Scott Wickland was Ambassador Steven's agent in charge, his personal escort for that night, and was with him in the villa during the attack.”The function of an agent in charge can be described in a number of ways. “Personal escort for that night” were the words that Hicks chose instead of other words that could have been used. This is possibly another point of entry into the story where important information could be waiting for discovery.