One day, walking up the back stairs to our apartment, we heard a woman’s voice coming from a single anonymous window somewhere on the block, and that voice said one sentence in a venom-laced shrill born out of what must have been years of frustration.
“Why don’t you ever LISTEN to me!!”
The memory of that noise is tattooed upon my consciousness, and repeating that line has provided me with far too much pleasure to feel proud of. It’s a great story to pull out at cocktail parties.
Schadenfreude aside, that woman we heard that day was expressing one of the most basic human needs, the need for non-physical connection. We are cognitive, emotional beings, and our social safety, validation, and comfort are partially dependent upon how well we are understood: how well others see us from the inside, not just the outside.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: there’s a difference between listening and hearing. That’s because you’re always hearing, but the thing you’re listening to is what you’re focusing on. So many tangents we could go on regarding this point, but I want to focus on the art of listening to another person. In a conversation, hearing someone is the BLAH BLAH BLAH of their words hitting your ears and making the bones in your ear vibrate in one of the most miraculous processes the Universe has woven into existence.
A quick Googling will give you great articles and videos about how to develop listening skills, which is something that should probably be on everyone’s bucket list (assuming your socialization process did not make your empathic listening impeccable). I’ll post a few videos and links below because I’ll let some experts give that advice instead of me. But a ramshackle list of listening skills, just off the top of my head might include the following:
- Paying deliberate attention to the other person (even when what they’re saying is boooooo-ring…)
- Be present with the other person
- Make them socially comfortable to be open with you (as appropriate, of course)
- Use verbal and non-verbal cues to show your interest:
- Compliment what they say with a “that’s nice,” or “tell me more” or “really? How interesting”
- Nod and/or smile
- Gauge their comfort with you and adjust as appropriate
- Summarize what they said and ask follow-up questions
- Don’t be judgmental
- Don’t assume they have malicious intent
- Don’t interrupt
- Understand your relationship to that person, the context of the conversation, and what they are getting from this speaking interaction with you (information sharing, emotional bonding, or something material, like a drink or a dollar bill)
- Please please please--I cannot stress this enough--please do not be one of those people that monopolizes every conversation by just talking about yourself. It shuts down human connection and does nothing but pad one person's ego. It's gotten to the point where I can see this phenomenon coming right at the beginning of a conversation. I notice if you don't ask me or anyone else questions, and I especially notice if you're a guest at an event but you spend zero time talking about the event and 100% of the time talking about your house, your job, your kids, etc. Please don't do this. Talking only about yourself without showing genuine interest in other people alienates you (and most times you don't even know it, because, like, are people going to tell you they're alienating you? No, because you don't listen.) Further proof for the importance of listening and its power to connect.
- Listen to your elders (just a good rule of thumb)
Listening, on a deeper level, is more than the practicality of communication; it’s about honoring another person. The gift of one’s attention is among the greatest gifts one person can give to another. Speaking well (i.e. appreciating that gift by crafting your speech to the person) is a separate skill than listening, and deserves a post of its own. Because listening is often overlooked; it is passive, and in that passivity there is great power.
I have done meditation exercises where two partners, usually strangers to each other, are given a question, such as “How do you manage stress?” One partner answers the question by speaking their answer to the partner, while the partner just sits and actively listens. Through this activity, you practice being present with another person, creating a space for them to express themselves, absorbing the truth of their life as they see it without judgement. Doing an exercise like that quickly makes you realize how little you pay attention to your listening practices, and, potentially, how much you can grow.
In a society of shouting and loud music, this exercise reminds of the power of passivity, of what it means to just be there for someone, of being open to truths beyond ourselves. At its core, the entire endeavor of listening reminds us that none of us are more important than another. All the drama in my life is exactly equal to anyone else’s, and even if it wasn’t, setting my life aside to listen understand another’s perspective—and giving space for that perspective to be verbalized and to change us both—is a powerful tool human beings have used for millennia to help build the world we live in today.
Because the legacy of human civilization has not just been determined by hammers and swords; it has been built by language. From the Library of Alexandria to the printing press, from the Declaration of Independence to “I Have a Dream,” words shape our minds. Indeed, words create the world. I am not a linguist, but I dabble when I can. Each word is a label, or, to oversimplify, it is either an idea with a correlate in the natural world or helps us structure our thoughts about the world. Words help us organize what we see. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein famously said (so famously I’m sure I’ve used this quote in other posts here), and when you start examining the lines between the signs and signifiers it is difficult to see how that isn’t so.
According to some, language itself has created new cosmic realities and potentials, and we aren’t just talking about storytelling here. In the 1920s, Vladimir Vernadsky positied the idea of the noosphere, or the realm of language and ideas. Later, a French Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin took up this idea and contrasted it with the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Each sphere grows out of another, with the geosphere giving way to the biosphere giving way to the noosphere in increasing complexity, in just the same way dirt begat life begat humans begat reality television. There has been a tremendous amount written about this, and if you'd like to start, check out these Wikipedia articles on Noogenesis (what?) and the Anthropocene (uh huh). Upon these ideas, Teilhard de Chardin built a cosmology in books such as The Phenomenon of Man, a cosmology that, in my view, elevates the importance of listening.
If we conceive of the noosphere as a separate realm of reality, then we can see the tools needed to tend it. Just as ecology, science, medicine, and animal rights are some of the tools we employ to care for the geosphere and the biosphere, the tools we use to cares for the geosphere and animal rights cares for the biosphere, the tools we use to tend the noosphere are ethics, law, education, and, yes, listening. Listening develops relationships through creating connection. I know that when someone is actively listening to me, through eye contact and body language and verbal cues, and when they make me feel really understood, I am just so grateful. Grateful to them for letting me open up, for validating me by thinking what I have to say is important simply because I want to say it, but also grateful to them for letting my words in, for letting my words change them. Every microinteraction or microthought, no matter how small, changes us in some little way. Some change us big time. Being open to the magic of another’s words--and not taking that magic for granted—is a pleasurable phenomenon nearly beyond language.
Listening is opening the door. It’s opening the windows to let in the birds’ song. Listening is being present, being actively passive, offering your attention to another. Listening is sacrifice; it is vulnerability. Listening waters the garden of friendship; it tills the soil of compromise and progress. Listening is lowering the drawbridge and prying open the gate. It is sitting in your boss’s office with a straight spine not knowing if you’ll get fired. It’s awaiting what the doctor has to say. It’s setting yourself aside and getting to know someone for who they are. Listening is acknowledging the impossibility of solipsism; it is acknowledging that we and our experiences are not the only things that exist, that there is so much reality and truth outside of us, and therefore listening is offering space to the universe by offering breath to someone else. To me, there are times when there’s nothing as important. But you probably already know I feel that way because you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying.
Here are some excellent videos and articles I found about how to develop listening skills and why, but all the capillaries of the internet are sure to hold more.
"10 Steps to Effective Listening" at Forbes.com
Going Past Empathy: The Four Levels of Listening and How You Can Listen Yor Way to Innovation from TheDesignGym.com
"Listening Skills" at SkillsYouNeed.com
"True Listening" by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in the Shambhala Times