How to Listen Well

It's Simple, but It's Not Easy

listening man -- how to listen well

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In my last post I gave you four reasons why you’re probably a bad listener. At the time of this writing that post has had over 40 shares! I promised you I’d follow up with a post on how to listen well. I hope this is helpful.

To listen well, you must…

1. Cultivate presence

Listening is more than hearing, as I explained in my previous post.

Hearing happens on a biological level, but listening, at its best, is a spiritual exercise.

The heart of all authentic spirituality is learning to cultivate presence to God, learning how to truly “be with” God in the present moment. Listening well, then, requires learning how to do this in the presence of a fellow human being.

This is simple, but it’s not easy. To cultivate presence, you must learn to do the following:

a. Ignore your own thoughts

They will come and go. You’ll think of clever things to say, but they won’t usually matter. No matter what, this isn’t about you, it’s about the other person. Keep your eye on the ball.

b. Focus fully on not only the words, but the body language, “vibe,” and facial cues of the speaker

The best listeners are able to “hear” not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.

This happens in between the words, in the places of silence, in a speaker’s tendency to say something very meaningful and then, out of discomfort, tell an awkward joke or otherwise attempt to lighten the mood.

Unless you’re a therapist, it will not usually be up to you to pursue these moments, but you will pick up what the speaker is throwing down so much better if you at least are aware of them.

c. Be aware of your own emotion in the present moment, that is, how the speaker’s entire message is affecting you in the moment.

This is not judgment, it is simply awareness of what is happening in your own heart and mind as you are listening.

d. Remain open

The speaker may say things that anger you, scare you, bore you terribly, arouse you sexually, bring funny things to mind in your own life, trigger intense memories of past events, or a broad range of other things.

Whatever happens, you must continue to focus on the other person.

The more absorbed you get with whatever is happening in you, the less you will be able to listen.

e. Be in awe of the speaker

This sounds over the top, but I deeply believe that if you can find yourself in awe of the speaker, of the fact that of all the people he/she could be speaking to, they have chosen you, that they are sharing with you not just a story, but a piece of their humanity — if you can get in touch with this sense of awe, that will come through to the speaker, even if they don’t know what to call it.

When you find yourself in awe of the person you are listening to, listening becomes easy, because you desire only to be with them in that exact moment, exactly the way it is.

This is an advanced state, and if you are able to cultivate it even occasionally, you’ll be among the best listeners your friends and family have ever known. I have been a therapist for more than twenty years, and I sometimes find it is very difficult to get to this place.

You can only get here by practicing all the skills above this one and, even then, it often feels to me more like a gift of grace than something I have produced on my own.

2. Make eye contact with the speaker

You cannot listen fully to a person you are not looking at. You aren’t nearly as good at multi-tasking as you think.

There is almost an argument to be made that if you cannot take a moment to look at someone who is speaking to you, you need to ask them to talk to you at another time. This depends, of course, on the importance of what they are telling you, which is probably best evaluated by the other person.

3. Stop the speaker occasionally and paraphrase, to make sure you’re getting it

“So what I hear you saying…”

“Wait, are you telling me…”

“Okay, let me see if I can summarize this…”

4. When you get distracted or sidetracked, ask the speaker to repeat themselves

“I’m sorry, you lost me for a second. Are you talking now about your uncle or your dad?”

Rather than showing you don’t listen, this shows how hard you are working to make sure you are listening well, and people appreciate it.

5. Do not say/do any of the following:

a. “I know how you feel.”

No — you don’t. No two people feel the same way about even very similar things.

Show, don’t tell. You’re listening hard to see how much you can come to understand. If you listen well enough, and follow the instructions I am giving you, they will know you understand, and you won’t have to say it.

b. “You should…”

Don’t give advice unless you are asked for it. This especially includes spiritual advice like “Pray about it,” “Take it to God,” “Seek the Lord,” ”

c. “If I were you I’d…”

You’re not them, and it’s not about you. Again, if they want to know what you would do, they will ask. In my work as a therapist and pastor, I will sometimes decide at the beginning of a meeting, “I’m not going to say a single word until this person asks me to speak.”

d. What do you think God/Uncle Elmer/Mom/our sister/your husband/etc. will think about this?

This question is almost never asked for any reason other than out of a desire to somehow shame the speaker into doing or not doing a certain thing. It is therefore, in its very nature, toxic and manipulative.

If you think that you have a “great mission” when someone is speaking to you, to “present truth” to that person, then you should not be listening to this person, because you are probably going to abuse them.

Lesson: You can abuse people even with obvious and absolute truth. Sometimes there are things you think a person ought to do that they objectively should do for their own good. But if you try to force this on a person, you are abusing them. Anytime you try to force your will, your ideas, your perspectives, or your beliefs on another person, you are abusing them.

The thing that makes every human being most human is their own free will, and their absolute right and responsibility to make their own decisions and determine the direction of their own lives. This must be held inviolate.*

*This is situational, however. If you are on Facebook, debating something with a bunch of people, and you are all trying to persuade one another of your own views, then every person has chosen to be there and be part of this persuasive project you are doing together. Even in this situation, however, try to be aware of when a person has simply shared their view and does not wish to be forcefully persuaded. Always try to err on the side of not forcing yourself on others. For some (including myself, I shamefully admit), this can be very difficult to avoid, particularly on social media.

e.  Make faces, exclaim “Oh my god!” judge, or otherwise show shock or revulsion

The more grotesque, immoral, inappropriate, or shocking a thing is that someone decides to share with you, the more they are already aware of how grotesque, immoral, inappropriate, or shocking it is. They are coming to you because they deeply need someone to talk to about it, and they are deeply afraid of being judged for it.

Every person’s most crippling condition is shame, and doing any of the things above will activate shame in another person and cause them to feel unheard, misunderstood, devalued, embarrassed, and/or like it was a huge mistake to talk to you to begin with.

You do not need to approve of a person’s behavior or ideas to let them talk fully and openly. Often one of the reasons people won’t ask you how you feel is because they already know, and they just want you to listen to them.

You will be surprised at how much good you can do by simply learning to listen fully and deeply to people, how to be present with them, how to walk through pain with them instead of trying to cheer them up. This is deeply healing (see my story about Byron in my previous post).

In this love and acceptance from you, people find what I believe is the love of God, and are quite often moved to make the very changes you may already know they need to make, only it comes from them and not from you, which is the best possible ending.

You may be thinking, “Dave, good heavens, someone would have to be superhuman in order to do this!” This is true, in that it requires that you and I become different people than we are today.

You cannot listen this way if you are self-absorbed, fearful, if you need to force your beliefs on others out of some fear of you or them going to hell, or if you are unable/unwilling to let go of your own witty comebacks and just allow a person to speak freely in the moment.

It does require deep personal and spiritual change. And so we come full circle, because that is perhaps the bottom line reason why most people do not listen well, because they do not wish to pursue the inner change it requires.

Do you wish to pursue this change? What do you most need to work on? Let me know in the comments!

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  • psybear

    Am going to share this so I can reread this over and over as I seek to become a listener. I think it’s one of the most important spiritual gifts one can give to another. So glad I got on facebook tonight and kept scrolling down. I almost missed this. I thought your blog went to my email address, too, so I’ll have to check there. Another great article…