Learning to Listen
Updated: Mar 28
“People underestimate the place of listening in the creative process, I say — the way in which your ear starts picking up some kind of frequency or pattern.” Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury in conversation with Nick Cave
You know that feeling when you’re with a friend and you have a really great conversation? It’s a feeling that is akin to being emotionally sated and full. It seems today that feeling is getting less attainable than ever before. With phones on the table or in our hands, an urge to document every moment with photos and tweets, distractions everywhere, it’s no wonder that so many of us are feeling hungry for attention. It’s no wonder so many of us are feeling empty and at a loss as to why.
If you really think about our day, our life, our relationships, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space where we feel those around us are actually listening to us, hearing us, seeing us. In fact, some research, according to Entrepreneur magazine, has shown that "the average person listens at only 25% efficiency." It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It just means they have their own stuff going on whether it is their own relationships, families, jobs, that what often happens in any given conversation, what is said is filtered with their own perceptions and thought processes. Advice is given that doesn’t reflect what was being expressed and doesn’t truly see the person sharing their problems or dilemmas. It’s the “what I would do…” kind of advice. What gets lost is us, a chance to really be heard.
As a coach, my most fundamental role is to listen. And to ask questions that would help the person sitting in front of me (virtually or IRL) explore more of what they truly want to say or how they feel. I ask questions that are focused on them specifically so that they have an opportunity to think in ways they perhaps wouldn’t have been given an opportunity to do so before. While I can say it is a privilege to be in that position (and it truly is), I feel like, as Rowan Williams said above, i have picked up a frequency and I am in a sacred space into which I have been invited—the space that is a person’s life.
It is similar energy to when I was interviewing someone when I was a journalist. What was of utmost importance to me was that space between us and around us. I was so protective of it that I would insist on everyone except for the camera crew to either leave the room or be out of me and my guest’s line of sight. I didn’t want any movements or sound to break the flow that we would be in.
You see, when you’re talking to someone about something deeply personal or something that is important and if you’re in the position of being the person who is listening, there is precious energy being exchanged. Oftentimes a person who is sharing their story or their truth doesn’t necessarily want anything to be solved, they just want to feel safe in the knowledge that what they’re sharing is heard and respected.
Listening is one of the most important skills one can have. In any given profession, listening is crucial. And if you're a leader, listening is an essential tool in creating an environment that empowers and engages your teams.
So how do you listen with the purpose of truly hearing what your friend, partner, family member, or colleague is wanting to tell you?
It starts with your body language. Make sure you’re comfortable and sitting down facing them. Alternatively, if you are out on a walk then make sure you’re walking in step with them. Your body language is the first bit of communication telling that person, ‘I’m here, I’m listening, nothing else matters in this moment.’
Breathe in deeply and out slowly as a way to focus yourself and bring yourself into the present moment. This also helps to redirect your energy to both yourself and to the person in front of you (or next to you).
If you’re sitting at a table, put your phone on silent and put it away—either in your bag or on the seat next to you. If you’re walking put the phone in your pocket. If you can’t see it or hear it, you won’t be distracted by it. Your eyes should meet theirs.
Listen. Actually hear the words your friend is saying. Don’t think about how you will respond or what you think they should do. Don’t think about what you want for dinner. Don’t move ahead of them mentally. Just listen.
Ask supportive questions to help you understand what they’re trying to convey. Questions like, ‘tell me more’, ‘what does this bring up for you?’ and ‘what do you want in this moment?’ are all good paths to take.
Keep the focus on them. You can share some insights if you’ve had similar experiences (not that what you felt will be the same way your friend feels). But this also helps that person feel less alone in how they’re feeling. Plus, it’s a conversation after all.
When they have shared all that they have wanted to share, don’t immediately turn the topic back to you. Acknowledge all that they’ve shared. Respect their honesty and vulnerability. Thank them sharing their feelings and experiences with you.
This may sound elementary but next time you’re out with friends or you’re having a conversation with your partner, take a moment to observe what it is you’re actually doing. If you’re the one trying to share something, take a moment to notice if the person you’re talking to is actually listening. Having one person in our lives who takes the time to listen to us helps us feel less alone and less needy because a fundamental need is being met.
Oftentimes, if we are that person who feels heard we end up finding the answers we seek. We can see the path clearly ahead of us.
When we feel heard, when we feel seen, when we have been given the time and space to explore what we’re feeling or thinking, it gives us the confidence to start exploring who we are and what we truly want in our lives. That’s when things start to shift. That’s when we feel more in control of the things we can change. And actually do something about it.