How to (Really) Listen

The first duty of love is to listen.
– Paul Tillich

Failures to listen are endemic to our species.

The most common complaint from parents who bring their children to me for counseling is that “they don’t listen,” by which the parent usually means that the child does not obey. When I talk with children, they likewise complain that their parents don’t listen, but they mean it literally. Failure to listen to children has subtle but enduring consequences. Kids who grow up unheard can pass on what they experienced to their own children.

I discovered the value of listening carefully to children, in their words and their behaviors, many years ago. One evening, while visiting one of my brothers, I joined the family for a dinner of fried chicken. My niece, then three years old, repeatedly asked for “an angel.” My brother and his wife told her to stop complaining and eat her dinner. As her requests for “an angel” became more strident, so did her parents’ reprimands. I found myself wondering what she might mean by “an angel” and offered her a chicken wing. She smiled, took the wing, and happily finished her meal.

The complaints I hear from couples are similar to those I hear from parents: “He doesn’t listen.” “She doesn’t listen.” “He/she did it for no reason.” But there is always a reason; usually, we need only to ask, and to listen, to determine what it is.

Many of us are so concerned with what we want to say, or so convinced that our beliefs are true, that instead of really listening, we talk over one another, interrupt, discard the other person’s point of view, leaving unheard and often unspoken the deeper parts of who we are.

In the Buddhist sangha I attend, each week someone reads from the writings of a teacher. The teachings are called the dharma, and we explore them in a dharma discussion. One by one, as we are so moved, we speak either to the topic of the reading or to something important that has occurred in our lives. A sangha rule is that after someone speaks, we wait three slow breaths before anyone else talks, so we have time to fully take in what each of us has shared. We don’t need to mentally rehearse anything, we don’t have to look for the right time to chime in, and we aren’t afraid that we won’t have a chance to say what we need to say. There is, somehow, always enough time.

With my niece, I was outside the family system and could see the dynamic from a distance. As a therapist, I am also outside the family system and can sometimes discern, more readily than its members, where communication has broken down. And, as a sangha member, I am reminded of how to listen at the beginning of each dharma discussion. But we don’t have to be outside the family system, or therapists, or Buddhists, to listen. We just have to practice.

The following exercises are some I have found helpful in my training and my life. You might, too. They are all practiced by two people. First, one speaks while the other listens, and then they reverse roles. You may wish to try them with a friend or family member.

  1. Listen silently. Sit quietly for five minutes and listen to someone talk about something important. Signal your interest using only your facial expressions and your eyes.
  2. Listen with tonal responses. Add, to the above, non-verbal utterances such as “Ah!” “Mmm,” “Uh-huh,” and so on.
  3. Listen with body language. Add, to the above, by responding to the body language of the speaker with your own body language.
  4. Listen with comments on tonal responses and body language. Add, to the above, by commenting on the speaker’s tone and body language, but not on his or her words. “I noticed your voice dropped.” “I see that you’re shaking your head from side to side.”
  5. Listen with mirroring. Finally, add to the other exercises by directly mirroring what the speaker says. Listen to what feels like a chunk of monologue and then signal the speaker to pause. Next, say something like, “So, it sounds to me as if you are saying…. Is that right?” If you have captured the gist of what the speaker said, the speaker continues with the next chunk. If not, the speaker clarifies, then you mirror back the clarification to make sure that you now understand.

By nature, we may not be good listeners. But, by nature we are not good at many things, and yet we eventually learn to do them well. Listening skills are not complex and they are easily learned. Even young children I have worked with can become quite skillful at listening, often with surprisingly little instruction. So can we all.

P.S.  If you find what you read here helpful, please forward it to others who might, too. Or click the social share and email buttons on this page.

From Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
PrintAmazon  –  BookBaby  –  B&N  – Books-a-Million
eBook: Kindle  – Nook  – iTunes  – Kobo

NOTE: Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:

Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
The Bookshop, 40 West Street, Beverly Farms, MA 01915
Boston Public Library (main branch)
Brookline Public Library (main branch)
NOBLE Public Libraries (Beverly Farms and Salem)
MVLC Public Libraries (Hamilton-Wenham)

Please let me know if you find it in other locations!

Also available:
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)

Follow me on:

Copyright 2017, David J. Bookbinder

P.S.  If you find what you read here helpful, please forward it to others who might, too. Or click the social share and email buttons on this page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *