The Fine Art of Listening Can Transform the Quality of Your Communication and Relationships

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An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Awakening to Sanity: Being Sane in an Insane World—A Traveler's Guide

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. —Robert McCloskey

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure. —Henri Nouwen

It is a common experience to formulate your response in your head and wait none too patiently for another to complete their speaking so you can share your far more important opinion. In your anxiety over not being able to make your point right now, you may disrespectfully talk louder and step over another's words with our own. You may even insist on having an answer this instant so you can get on with other pressing matters. Is this any way to listen or effectively communicate? To cultivate the art of listening well would seem to not be very valued or well taught in our society. Has it ever been?


Nothing would seem to be more primary to presence than cultivating the fine art of honest, whole-hearted listening in interested calm silence. This is most challenging when you realize that humans speak at an average rate of about 250 words per minute, while we cognitively process speech at more than triple this rate! Theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich pierced to the heart of the matter in noticing, "The first duty of love is to listen." There is listening, then there's being heard, being understood and being known.

"Most people have never really been listened to. They live in a lonely silence…no one knowing what they feel, how they live, or what they have done. They are prisoners of the eyes of others, of the stereotyped, limited, superficial and often distorted ways that others see them.

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There are no words to adequately describe what it is to be free with another person. It is most often a sensing that someone will let us be all of what we are at that moment. We can talk about whatever we wish, express in any way whatever feelings are in our hearts. We can take as much time as we need. We can sit, stand, pace, yell, cry, pound the floor, dance or weep for joy. Whatever and however we are at the moment is accepted and respected.

When someone really listens to us, our blood flows in his or her veins. That person is moved as we are by our history, passions, hurts, binds, values, joys: in short, by the integrity of our existence. It is an uncritical experience. We are blood sisters, blood brothers, friends of the blood. The blood carries an understanding beyond ideas. The listener's instinct to observe and judge is transcended.

This experience of freedom and communion helps us to feel that someone is for us. And it is this deep sensing of someone, somewhere, being for us that breaks into the silent loneliness of our lives and encourages us in the struggle to be human. It helps us to break the tyranny of the stranger's eyes and to give to our lives all that we are capable of giving. Because listening can bring about such powerful healing, it is one of the most beautiful gifts that people can give and receive."

Listening, real honest listening with one's whole heart, body and being, begins in presence. Without showing up in the present moment, how can you enter into another human being's speaking, feeling, thinking and experience? When we are not consciously present in this very moment, we are unavailable to listen, understand, connect and know anyone. Without listening, we are trapped in dueling monologues and unable to engage in a dialogue. What is getting in the way of being fully open and present to listen to this being? What does it take to break open our compassionate hearts for another, for our self?

Listening presence begins with the awareness and acknowledgement of all we bring to listening every moment: our filters, prisms and lenses of past history, feelings, beliefs, prejudices, judgments, assumptions, biases and opinions. Consider all of these the result of enculturation or, more specifically, conditioning, that is learned seemingly for our survival by the ego-mind or imaginary self. All of this distorts being present and lending a good ear to what is being communicated. Suspending assumptions and judgments, comparisons and status, agendas and taking anything personally opens space to simply listen. You can bring a conscious intention to see through them to what is real.

The greatest hindrance to listening presence is our unawareness and inability to engage in witnessing, that is, seeing through the non-existent self or ego-mind with all its chattering thoughts, cherished beliefs, opinions, roles and identities. The self-awareness and self-study of witnessing begins when "The I observes the Me," as psychologist William James put it. Once you see the mind or fictive ego through witnessing, standing outside of it looking at what it is up to now, what hold can it continue to have on you?

Listening presence certainly encompasses listening to our own cognitions and feelings that come up within our self, along with any added-on mental chatter and emotional reactivity. Sensing the same with another is equally important. Can we bring sensitivity and attention to all that arises, be transparent to our self and others over what is coming up for us in the moment, and rigorously set aside feeding any reactive fires within us or behaviorally acting out? As with all adaptive life transformation, what we let go, release and fully surrender is usually what inspires and propels our greatest growth.

When listening is authentic and effective, a reciprocal process of attunement is operating. In attunement to another, we bring a feeling with or empathizing with another's feelings as well as kinesthetic and emotional sensing of another. We engage in a reciprocal interaction of emotional expression or affect as well as an exchange of felt resonance. The listener sets aside or decenters from their own experience long enough to enter into the other's experience and world. Central within attunement is a clear respect for boundaries with each party.

Repeated interactions of attunement help establish an environment of safety, security and stability, especially as the listener signals that the perceived needs and feeling expression are not only acceptable, but are met with expressions of valuing and importance. In moments of attunement to the other there is a unity or oneness of contact.

Disinterest, boredom and being on automatic pilot is likely to be just as disconcerting and off-putting to the communicator as showing an urgency for them to finish or bringing an unspoken agenda to persuade or manipulate them without their prior agreement. Misattunements, that is, when we uncomfortably miss each other on some level in our communication, can occur fairly regularly, even in close relationships. Thus it is highly useful to learn how to identify misattunements, quickly acknowledge these and take corrective actions to again be accurately empathetic with respectful limits.

Several writers have used the term "beginner's ear", alluding to the Zen master Suzuki Roshi's use of "beginner's mind" standing for a fresh, open and uncluttered mind. Beginner's ear points to a fundamental openness without prejudgment to what is actually here-and-now and letting everything simply be exactly as it is. Greeting another with both a beginner's mind and a beginner's ear is to show core respect and caring to the speaker. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein in his book Stranger in a Strange Land actually coined a new verb for beginner's consciousness: to grok. Heinlein portrayed grokking as a fundamental way of knowing that is holistic, intuitive, direct and immediate. It is the type of rapport you timelessly offer by entering oneness with another's inner experience. A Zen saying, "hearing with one's eyes and seeing with one's ears," points to a unity and wholeness of perception and being that is at the heart of beginner's consciousness.

Psychologist Lawrence LeShan mentions an older sense of the word "understand" that is highly relevant within a discussion on listening well. In contract to the standard meaning of understanding, that is, breaking something down into component parts and describing how they work together, is the meaning to "stand under," that is to comprehend and perceive something by being apart or participating in it as an organic, complete process. 1 This description appears to well fit the experience of the artist, entrepreneur, inventor, innovator or mystic. Equally well, it fits listening presence.

Even as you sign up to listen and enter into another's world, both in what is being communicated and what is not being communicated (which may well be of even greater value for your awareness), communication is transmitted through different vehicles, both verbal and non-verbal. In listening presence, the listener's conscious intention requires giving oneself whole-heartedly to listen with undivided attention. Where you are "coming from" is key to quality listening. Looking another in the eyes, listening to another's tone of voice and being aware of another's body language are pivotal skills in listening well.

Psychological researcher Albert Mehrabian examined inconsistent messages and found converging experimental support for liking and feelings being most affected by facial expressions (55%), then vocal expressions (38%) and least by verbal expressions (7%). 2 By inference, in all communications it appears that facial expressions have far more importance than tone of voice which, in turn, has greater impact than words. These findings also strongly suggest that if you do not look at the speaker's face, you are likely to miss up to 93 percent of the speaker's communication!

The impact of our immediate environment and context typically are underestimated, while the person and their disposition are overestimated, in making attributions of cause and responsibility for actions. The mistake of overestimating the importance of character traits and underestimating the importance of the context or situation is called the fundamental attribution error and has considerable support in psychological research. 3 Consciously attuning to our environment, including physical setting, spaciousness and crowdedness, felt sense of the weather and so on, and actively factoring their influence into our perception, is well worth our conscious consideration and listening to as well. If you would like to hear more, please scroll down to the next HEAR button.

Listening does not occur in a vacuum. All communication is reciprocal, like a two-way street, with all parties interconnected doing a finely honed dance of interrelationship and interdependence at all times. Even as you attune yourself to be a clear channel and receiver in listening to someone else, so also are you being so listened to by the one broadcasting or speaking. There is no hiding, nor is there any needed. Often the speaker implicitly wants only to be fully heard and left alone, without giving them any suggestions, solutions or advice. Less can be more. It can be of great value to explicitly ask the communicator precisely what he or she wants from you in listening.

Listening presence naturally calls forth many qualities from us, not least of which is our generosity of spirit to develop the muscle of going beyond our self-centeredness and extend ourselves to include another in our world with our undivided attention and interest. We can bring a growing relaxed comfort and willingness to be in silence for another and with another as they take the messy steps to bring their life into presence and effective focus. Recently our college-aged son confided in my wife and I that one quality he observed in us that he was on the lookout for in a girlfriend was a genuine comfort in being silent with each other without any tension or need to fill the silent space. We were flattered and pleased with his growing maturity and knowing his vision of a relationship.

Listening presence calls forth from us the patience to listen at the pace and rhythm of the speaker. Out of consideration for our traveling partner, we do not go ahead, dawdle behind or drift away. Rather, we journey with another, in tandem, side-by-side. Charm, humor and timing are well known for making the most difficult truths palatable. There is no substitute for practice, practice and more practice. A growing trust, broadening openness and deepening compassion naturally blossom in listening presence.

Listening presence takes time and is timeless. It simply embraces what is with open arms, open heart and open spirit. When two hearts dwell within each other, nothing more need be said. The shared moments of imbibing and ingesting each other's life experiences is enough, like two hearts rhyming in the sheer joy of consciousness at play.


1. Lawrence LeShan, How To Meditate. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1974, pages 219-220.

2. Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1981, pages 76-77.

3. Fundamental Attribution Error research summarized in Richard E. Nisbett and Lee Ross, The Person and the Situation. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1991.

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