The Art of Listening

The opposite of talking isn't listening.

The opposite of talking is waiting.

Fran Lebowitz


In the past forty years or so, I've had the privilege of travelling to over 45

countries and rather than do mostly tourist things I would take time to sit

with indigenous people, hearing their stories, witness their highs and lows,

their laughter and joys. Sometimes they would talk of being in the most

profound pain or desperate circumstances; others would talk of going

through huge changes, crises of identity; yet others had witnessed

intense grief either through natural disasters such as tsunami’s in Thailand

or the natural death of loved ones. Some experienced the break-up of their

nation and through that some had had their dreams shattered and others

hope had been birthed.


I remember times such as sitting with an elderly lady sitting outside her

white house in Corfu, the colour of pride on her costume, the ravages of

the sun on her skin. But she seemed happy and at peace and one day

as I was passing I simply asked, “What are you doing here again today?”

And her simple reply was, “Well sometimes I sits and thinks,  (pause)

and sometimes I just sits!”


Then there was the young man I met in Sri Lanka; we had no common

spoken language but we shared many a day by drawing with a stick in

the sand.


In the former DDR, long before the wall between the then two Germanies came down, I had at times the most heart-breaking conversations as no matter how detailed the stories, I could never somehow comprehend what it was like to wake up one day and fine your land divided. Yet I should know, for I was in a town Helmstedt the night the wall went up. But then, I was a tourist, and I was on the “right” side of the wall.


But wherever I have visited, the one thing I've discovered is this: deep down, we are all the same. We all have the same basic human needs, for shelter and for rest, to be heard, to be seen, to be witnessed, to be validated and understood in the deepest, most soul-filled sense of the word.


The more I listened – with no agenda and no expectation - to someone in grief or fear or loneliness or despair, without trying to fix them in any way, just listening, without playing the role of 'the one who knows best' - just to be totally present with all of me responding to all of them, the more I realised we all need Love and we all have Love to give.


And that is how we begin to heal each other - through love. Through listening.






All of us have two basic needs


  1. To be accepted as the person we are and not as the person others think we ought to be

  2. To be valued, to be heard, to know that we have truly been listened to and heard.


Over the years I have come to notice that quality listening is something few people do well; what should be a duologue is more often a dialogue, or a take-over, a monologue.  Increasingly television and radio discussion programmes descend in to total lack of listening, and instead we witness shouting, interrupting, disrespecting, and a pre-occupation with “me-me-me” ie "I’m right you’re wrong! It’s all about me."


I like to call authentic listening an art from the heart, a rich source of loving healing. A boon when in conflict.




Can you recall a time when you had something really important to talk about and the person you were talking with just didn’t seem to listen? Perhaps they kept interrupting, looking away, didn’t give you time to work things through, or maybe they were restless,  or kept telling you not to worry or that you shouldn’t feel the way you did, or the matter was unimportant, or that things would get better soon. Worse still, as a nurse did with me the other day whilst multi-tasking – fixing a blood pressure monitor on me, printing out a label to put on a urine sample, keying something into her computer, whilst at the same repeating, “I’m listening, I’m listening” when it was so blatantly obvious she wasn’t. Listening is done not just with the sound that goes into your ears – listening is also done with your eyes, your hands, your heart, you whole body language


How did that make you feel when you weren't really listened to?


Most of us when confronted by a “non-listener” feel anger, frustration, devalued, cut-off, unheard – as if our concerns and issues were of no relevance. We may even feel small, insecure, nervous, disturbed, confused, and silly for raising the matter in the first place. We can even begin to feel self-hatred – “Am I so unworthy of your attention you can’t be bothered to really hear me?”, contempt, guilt and a desire for revenge.


The listener


Now, if you can, imagine a time when you had something really important to say and someone really DID listen to you, and listened with a high quality of attention. Did you notice that they were open, positive, warm, accepting of you (without judgement), at ease, almost leaning forward? They were present – not interrupting or trying to keep up the world record for multi-tasking. Their only interruption would be to perhaps ask a brief question about you or nod to let you know they were listening.


Then how did you feel? What was the difference?


With good listeners we feel heard, understood, accepted, secure, filled with warmth and contentment, joy, energy and power. We become creative, we respond rather than react, we express ourselves, and feel confident in ourselves and what we have to say, we are firm and certain. Many people say that they feel love when they are truly listened to – when someone hears not just our words but our pain and sorrow, our laughter, our joy – our all.




Often we are too busy to listen but to me that is just an excuse. We can, if we choose, take time out, to be calm, to be still, to physically re-arrange the area where we do our listening – and in that quietness we can learn to really listen. Information may come as images, as thoughts, as senses, feelings, like words, voices from spirit, whispers from angels. Teaching us – helping us heal and manage.  To listen we need to be silent -  same letters, different words. Very different intents.


When we offer others the gift of the art of listening – without judging them, accepting them for who they are, really making an attempt to genuinely understand them, allowing them to speak without interruption, we offer them an opportunity in their healing process, their attempt to understand, to grow, to resolve, to evolve.


Poor listeners are usually doing some of the following: -


Thinking they are listening when in fact they are engrossed in texting and checking mobile messages


Evaluating & Judging   -  they’re less interested in you and more in planning what they’re going to say next, or criticising others or their message. Usually they are judging the other or they’re getting ready to defend their point of view, opinion or belief. They often adopt the position of “I am right – you are wrong!” I had a nurse did that the other day – kept on and on with her outdated information and philosophy, defending it by an equally outdated health protocol and steadfastly refused to listen to my information, despite the fact I said I had got it that day from an article in the medical journal, the Lancet!


Jumping to conclusions – these poor listeners assume they know what you are going to say even before they’ve given you a chance to say it. They often assume “We’re all the same” - that people think and behave as they do and therefore  “tune out” people with whom they disagree or dislike or who are not like them. Or the adopt the position, “I’ve heard this a thousand times today!” You can see it in their body language. Unchecked assumptions fuel conflict; create relationship disharmony. In their division they certainly do not aid healing!


They often jump to the conclusion that they know what’s best for the other – so they jump in with advice, or they over-analyse or over-interpret what the other is really trying to say. They play “little solicitor” and “little doctor”. You’ll recognise them by statements like “You ought” and “Why don’t you …” and “What you need is …” they’re out to prove how good they are by trying to fix you!


Me too / what about me – they take the attention away from the talker by trying to top the talker’s story, “Oh yes, that happened to me too!” Men especially, though not exclusively, are skilled at this one!


Not attending / unfocussed - their minds wander, they submit to noises/distractions and give in to wishful hearing - hearing just what they want to hear or expect to hear rather than what is being said and felt by the speaker. You can see it in their eye movements.


Interrupting or dominating – this is a favourite behaviour of people who think their role gives them a Divine right to be superior and in control. So they interrupt and dominate in ways that others don’t get a chance to adequately express their ideas or needs and if they do and they use unclear words – the poor listener will fail to find out whether what they are hearing is really what the other person means. In interrupting they usually take over and dominate the conversation. Certainly they cut it off! They can also interrupt by constantly looking at their watch.


Expressing their superiority by speaking or contradicting the other – they lack humility. They use humour totally inappropriately. They abuse their position or their authority and so trample over others. You know the kind – on a training course or at a meeting – they always have to make a flippant remark. And of course we usually go along with it because we don’t like to offend. But all we are doing is colluding with poor listening behaviour. Until someone brave enough says, “Look, do you have to keep making those remarks? I don’t find them funny any more. So many of them it is beginning to get a bit tedious.”


Poor listeners also miss most of a communication – 90% of it in fact. For when we speak, the words we speak represent only about 7% of our message. The rest is made up by things such as gestures, non-verbal body language, voice tone, pitch and pace.  Poor listeners fail to read and use non-verbal communication.


Workaholics are often poor listeners because it doesn’t rate highly in their scheme of things.


Good listeners on the other hand


Give undivided attention – this means focussing on the other(s) and not pre-planning what they are going to say or drudging up memories from the past


Listen with their six senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and intuition; often we get hunches that cannot be substantiated by fact. Be prepared to share your hunches. Increasingly people will listen at a much higher, spiritual level too.


Suspend judgement – for when we judge we play to our judgements. Avoid labelling someone – if you label someone as obstructive then you will treat them accordingly. Defining someone else is limiting and a sign of your own arrogance.


Pay attention to Non-verbal messages and body language remembering that most communication is not through the words alone. Someone can be saying “yes” by words, whilst by hesitant tone and a furrowed brow be indicating they mean anything but “yes!”


Invite and encourage the other to talk using a range of questions and then they truly listen to the replies


Paraphrase – in other words they will reflect back to the other person their sense of what the other person has been saying, “So really, what you are saying is x,y, and z” This shows the person they are being listened to and helps clarify a situation.


Physically be present – their body posture will be attentive, not turned away nor disinterested. Neither will they stare …over emphasis on eye contact is culturally unacceptable in some countries.


Reflect feelings – they will pick up on how the other may be feeling

either from their demeanour or what they are saying and tentatively reflect

this back


Empathise – they attempt to see the world through the eyes of the other,

to wander around in the other’s shoes.


Summarise – periodically throughout a discussion, not just at the end of

it, they will summarise the key issues, points of agreement, disagreement

and so on.




                       Which of the poor listener behaviours and attitudes do you use? What will you do to lessen or curtail their use?

                       Which of the good listener attributes do you have? How can you make better use of them?

                       What can you do to make sure you are a really good listener?

                       How can you relate with others  that would encourage them to become good listeners also?


Julian Treasure
5 listening tips