Be a Listener

By Troy Headrick

I am an educator, a manager, and a writer, which means I use my brain and voice a lot.  In my profession and in the virtual world, a space more and more of us increasingly reside in, a great emphasis is placed on having a message and speaking it via websites or social media.  To get it out, though, the speaker needs to find an audience that is both willing to hear the message and capable of listening to it.

The world wide web is an overwhelmingly cacophonous place.  In response to all the “noise” of the virtual world (to all those voices speaking at and to us), many of us periodically respond by tuning out to a greater or lesser extent.  (I actually take vacations away from the internet from time to time, when I feel like I need a break.)  When we are online, we may be hearing some of that hubbub, but are we truly listening to any of it?  There is certainly an important distinction between hearing and listening, as Leon Berg points out in this great TED Talk

This blog about the importance of listening and how to be a good listener was mostly inspired by a Skype conversation I had with a friend recently.  During that talk, my buddy helped me think about the flaws in my current style of listening.

The friend I’m referring to is an exceptionally thoughtful person who is willing to wait her turn to speak.  Almost as soon as we began Skyping, I became aware that I was speaking more than she was, probably because, when conversing with an intelligent and interesting person, I often get excited by the ideas being voiced.  As my excitement level increases, my mouth tends to run more.  (Of course, because I spend most of my time during this pandemic stuck inside my house, I have few opportunities to speak to people other than those in my immediate household which makes me somewhat excitable and chatty.  This tendency is likely to resolve itself once the pandemic is behind us and I have become more social again.)

The important point is that a certain calmness and quietness of mind (and mouth) is needed to listen well.  The listener should be careful about planning a response while the other person is still speaking.  I found that I was doing this the other day and kept having to remind myself to pay closer attention. 

The skilled listener should think about purpose while talking with others.  If the point of the conversation is to debate, then one wants to impress or win.  If, on the other hand, one simply hopes to exchange ideas, the point of the listening is entirely different.  It is impossible to explore or exchange until one has listened carefully and openly, with one’s entire being, to what others have had to say.  Such a kind of listening is not driven by ego.  Ego asserts itself while speaking and tends to fade away during the act of listening intently. 

I noticed my friend doing something that I used to do back when I was in the classroom full time.  She would listen to my verbal outpouring and then repeat my ideas back to me in summary form.  I’d say blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and she’d say, “So, what I’m hearing is that you…”  This technique both demonstrates that the listener is engaged and helps provide clarity.  The speaker can then confirm or deny that the listener has heard accurately.  Like I said, this works well in a classroom setting.  It helps the speaker and the listener gain greater awareness of what one is saying and how the message is being received.

It seems to me that we live in era where speaking is favored over listening.  And because many Americans (and others?) put so much value on status and celebrity, everyone wants to “go viral,” to be heard and seen, to “seal the deal.”  Everyone is speaking and selling, but how many are listening and buying?  As skillful listeners become increasingly rare, they simultaneously become more precious.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

36 thoughts on “Be a Listener

  1. Listening to somebody who has been waiting for an audience since long is an act of humanity, specially nowadays when we are all home-bound. If we had listened more than speaking, we would have solved many problems in life. Some people need this therapy of being listened to 🙂

    1. Yes, I totally agree with everything you’ve said. It seems we all want to be heard these days but spend less time and energy hearing others. May we all work on becoming a little less egocentric! I like what’s currently happening from President Biden. He seems to be a real listener and is preaching the common good. Thanks so much for the comment.

  2. LOL!

    I once worked at a call center for internet customer support. (This was decades ago, before it all went to India.) You learn strange lessons about human nature and how to communicate.

    Back when I worked phone support, they’d mark you down on a monitored call if you did not use “reflexive listening .” I have had people get angry at me for using the “So, what I’m hearing is that you…” technique. They consider it a cop out, a way of responding without responding. “That’s what I just said. Why are you repeating it back to me?” I think in the back of their mind it felt like being mocked. Or maybe I hadn’t been listening and that was why I trying to confirm what they said.

    This usually only happened when the customer was already angry. Or just particularly obnoxious. Defusing anger is an art form all its own and one that appears to be in short supply these days.

    1. Thanks, Fred (Au Natural). Like you, I had a lot of interesting and varied jobs growing up and think those experiences helped me a lot. “Reflexive listening” is an interesting term. Sometimes educators refer to “active listening” as opposed to it passive counterpart. I can see how the sort of “summary listening” I referred to in my blog wouldn’t work in all situations. Actually, because I spent time studying rhetoric, one of my subject areas when I was in grad school, I think a lot about the context of communication–the situational variables that determine how it takes place. I don’t think we think enough about purpose during communication. Why are we speaking, writing, and listening? What do we hope to achieve and who is our audience and what do he/she/they bring to the situation? I agree fhat defusing anger is a important skill these days. I recall a politician named Dennis Kucinich from the past. Remember him? He ran for president and had, as one of his big ideas, to create a Department of Peace. After all, we have a Department of War which we call the Dept of Defense. Why wouldn’t we need to have a Department of Peace? I always loved that idea.

  3. Good and thoughtful article , listening requires patience , gives clarity , reflection , builds perspective , the true reason for growth and knowledge at personal level.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Yes, we often equate growth with “personal development,” but we could “develop” ourselves so much if we learned and practiced empathy and such, things which come as a result of feeling what others feel and really listening to their stories. We can sometimes learn more about ourselves by thinking less about ourselves. We can receive much by giving more.

      1. So true our perspective or experience of life will always be limited , we need to see through others to know those parts of life and develop in a complete sense .

  4. Listening is fun! It does enhance when one enters a state of being (i.e. mindfulness)! I agree that listening is valuable in clarifying, enhancing, and opening a conversation. I also relate to a sentence you said. When I feel like I have to prove that I’m “right” or have to “win” (i.e. in a debate), I forget to consider the other person’s view. Lastly, I believe that the role of a speaker is important. Having two listeners in a conversation wouldn’t be productive…

    1. Because we live in such polarized times, I think speaking and listening have too often become something akin to bloodsports. I think we too often listen so that we can find a speaker’s vulnerability. In this competitive society, we put a lot of emphasis on winning and “ending up on top.” When these values and kinds of thinking begin to shape the way we speak and listen to one another, we’re in trouble. (And I sense that we are in trouble today.) Yes, communication cannot happen unless there is one is giving and one who is receiving (and these roles become interchangeable as the communication unfolds). There is an interesting symbiosis between speakers and listeners.

      1. One-upmanship! I have never thought that a competitive society would make conversations competitive as well. If that is the case, listening would be an anecdote. If one were to listen for the sake of finding another’s vulnerability, I interpret that as gaining a sense of power from another person’s weakness… which is not really listening. I feel like competition defeats the purpose of communication, which as you said, is a symbiosis between speakers and listeners!

  5. I feel like the need to have a voice can turn out to be more of a prison for us than an opportunity to express ourselves if we’re not careful. We want to be heard so much that we’re willing to rush our words in such a way that what we meant to say gets lost and we’re left frustrated, wondering where it all went wrong.

    If I’m right about that, then I think that the skill of listening becomes all the more significant because it not only allows us to understand the situation better, but it allows the one talking to recognise their voice, rather than settling for a version twisted by our attempts to rush it.

    1. Yes, there is a big difference between speaking and misspeaking. Your comment makes me think a lot about emotion and acting emotionally. When I think about those times in life when I blundered while speaking and confusion or misundestanding was the result, it was invariably because my emotions got the best of me and my rationality was hindered as a result. The emotions get us in trouble so much. (I’m aware that I’m sounding like a Buddhist and a Stoic, but that’s because I am these things.) Plus, as someone who believes in the power of artful thinking, I would have to readily admit that I try to keep my emotions in check. My way of living is to attempt to keep an even keel, to stay cool, calm, and collected no matter what’s taking place.

  6. The art of listening is diminished in our current world to the point where I’m not sure if anyone has learned anything worthwhile for decades. The shallowness of people has gotten so pronounced that I think we have ceased to grow emotionally and maybe even intellectually.

    1. I would tend to agree, G. J. Jolly. If you are an American, then you know our culture does us no favors in this respect. We want immediate gratification and seem to be intellectually weak to the point that many of us are prone to believing in all manner of outlandish conspiracies. In such a situation, it’s not so much that we’re not listening; it’s that we’re listening to the wrong sorts of people and things and don’t have the intellectuall wherewithal to be able to distinguish between the sensible and the nonsensical. When such becomes the case, we know we’re in trouble.

      1. Yes, Troy, I’m an American, a transplant from Colorado currently living in the mountains of Tennessee. If we were truly listening, we’d know we’re listening to the wrong people. I think we lost all ability to have common sense, which would have allowed us the ability to listen.

  7. I relate to the feelings of desperate chattiness. I’ve noticed in myself.

    I agree with much of what you wrote. It occurs to me to wonder too about speed. So many of us are revved up all the time. Listening seems harder when it feels like it’s a constraint. Or maybe that’s just a “me” thing?

    1. Yes, you’ve put your finger on the point. Too many of us are too revved up all the time. Why has this happened? Where is the cause? If we could put our finger on it, we might be able to take some corrective action. What do you think? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

  8. “It seems to me that we live in era where speaking is favored over listening”

    You are absolutely right, Troy.
    And indeed, a certain calmness and quietness of mind (and mouth) 😁 is needed to listen well.
    I love being a listener, and have benefited greatly from it.
    Brilliant article, Troy. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

    1. The world is filled with all sorts of experts and “influencers” and such, but I have often found the greatest wisdom coming out of the mouths of the most “ordinary” of folks. For example, one of the wisest people I’ve ever known was my maternal grandmother. She didn’t even finish high school, but she was so wise. We often look to the wrong kind of people for wisdom and guidance.

  9. It takes a lot of maturity and patience to be a great listener and which is why we humans struggle being good listeners.

  10. Excellent topic! I named my other blog “Listen & Hear” with the idea of touching the topics related to a skill of listening. I have noticed how often and how easy it is to let your ears do the work while you/ your attention is somewhere else. It is a real art to be able to truly listen (and hear) the other being. Means we put ourselves aside for a while, dismiss the inner chatter, opinions, comments, and are just present. Give our undivided attention. This is a small miracle.
    Not only is this an art when it comes to communication with another being (we can listen and hear even our pets IF we discard the chatter, common ideas and interpretations of opinions that rumble trough our heads), it is an art to listen and to hear yourself. To be an observer instead of participant in our own play called life is a skill worth learning and practicing. When being an observer it is possible to listen and hear yourself. This will provide a new level of understanding.
    Speaking from my personal experience, listen and hear to yourself first will make it possible to do the same in communication with other beings. And they will know it and appreciate it. To be able to Listen&Hear makes the connection between humans (and humans- pets 😉 ) strong; provides answers without questions being asked; sooths and encourages without giving an opinion of your own.
    Below a link of performance of a Yugoslav artist M. Abramovic and her project The artist is present in MoMA in 2010. It is about giving attention to another human. Intriguing, touching, familiar.

    And, as I teach tai chi not only as external, but also as internal art , I could go on and on about the attention and intention and how those interact….
    p.s. I recommend an excellent read: Erich Fromm´s The art of listening
    Thank you for writing (and reading). Have a good Sunday 🙂

  11. A quote I remember hearing in the recent past (mostly because I don’t think I could think of such a profound piece of advice) is: “Listen to hear, not to speak.”

    Thank you for taking the time to share this, Troy, and for the encouragement to examine the way we engage in conversation.

  12. This is so true Troy, I do wonder sometimes that with such an enormous amount of importance given to marketing everything has become about talking. Sometimes even to the detriment of listening, people often think talking is listening as well – don’t know how that happens. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who listen actively and engage a certain curiosity to know more without judgement or condescension

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