Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On the Art of Listening

As a writer, I am forever honing the craft of writing. As a professor, I am eternally mired in papers, thereby helping me perfect the art of reading (and editing!). But what about that elusive skill...the one we start to practice first as infants when words have not yet formed...the art of listening? It's the ability we've technically practiced the most, yet it is sometimes a dastardly task to accomplish even with two perfectly functioning ears.

As fiction writers, we can practice listening by imagining the voices of our characters. What do they sound like? What kind of vocabulary do they use? How formally or colloquially do they speak? As we come to hear these characters, we get to know them better, and that familiarity hopefully transfers to the written page so the readers can hear these characters as well as we can.

The real world is a different story (pun intended). When we think we are listening to our friends, our professors, our colleagues, our family, we are often only hearing their words instead of listening to the message. Our minds are full of distractions, and often the biggest distraction is the argument we are already formulating in response to something spoken moments before. We focus on what our hearts have to say and stop listening to the other person. When we do this, we are effectively saying, "My ideas or feelings are more important than yours." (Even if we believe this, it is bad form to admit it.)

So what can we do? (I've given this a lot of thought as I've recently been frustrated by many around me who say they hear me but don't actually do it unless I accidentally burp at the dinner table.)

Like we must sometimes do with our addiction to electronic devices, we can make the effort to temporarily shut down...our minds, that is. When listening to someone, we need to turn off our own thoughts and say to ourselves, For this moment, I am listening to someone else. Quite honestly, I think the brain would appreciate a respite. I tried this the other night with my daughter, and it actually helped me relax even though her message was one of sadness. By ignoring my own frustration with her behavior and choosing to listen to her, I heard what was in her heart.

What say you? Any suggestions for how we can learn to listen better?


  1. I think you have nailed it. Listening is not only about being mindful of them but of aware of your own head-space.

  2. I enjoyed visiting your blog and your helpful tips. I agree with your observations about being a good listener and I am afraid that there are no simple solutions. Instead, we must all simply remember to make ourselves stop and listen!

  3. What I try to do Prof' to become a better listener is to focus my eyes on the person. Sounds simple enough yet our eyes register so many things when we think we are listening. Whether at work or the dinner table or the latest family gathering so many images interrupt our active listening.

    Sometimes I will stare at my wife intently when she is speaking to me - to make sure I actually get it, since I am often accused of not listening to her! LOL.......I suppose I look a bit scary and indeed she thinks I'm weird but it works for me.

  4. Yes, eye contact certainly long as you aren't staring the person down, causing THEM to lose focus ;-)