The Lost Art of Listening

photo by Ben White

Many human beings are born with the ability to hear, but in our world of social media, constant access to the Internet, and insta-everything, some of us have lost the ability to listen. Listening is a skill that is learned and should be practiced daily. It involves more than using your ears. It demands engaging your entire body and all of your senses.

Listen to their eyes

When you’re talking with a friend or loved one, don’t look at their eyes, but into the pupil itself. It may be scary for a minute, but keep it up and you’ll find it will relax you, slow everything down, and allow you to have a balanced, focused conversation. Take a break from other physical activities and your focus will shift to connecting with the other person. Not all listening is spoken; absorbing nonverbal cues (body language) is a vital part of active listening.

Listen to their stories

Think back: what random trivia do you know about this person? How does your coworker take their coffee? Are they even a coffee drinker? What is your partner’s favorite food? What does your mom’s perfect Saturday look like? What is the most annoying thing you do, according to your roommate? What TV show is your BFF binge-watching right now? Ask and listen.

Listen to remember

How many times have you had a conversation with someone and not been able to remember what they just told you? How many times have you read an article and not been able to summarize what it was about? Listen intently to the people in your life and to your surroundings and take a moment afterward to process what just happened. Let the new information sink in so you can remember it.

Listen to your world

Go for a walk without headphones or drive without radio. What does the world around you sound like? What are the sounds of your city? What do the birds sound like and at what time do they sing? When was the last time you heard total silence and allowed it to sink in?

Listen to your media

When was the last time you truly listened to music? We hear music every day, but when was the last time you truly absorbed it? How many times have you sung along to the “song of the summer” only to realize the lyrics mean something completely different than what you assumed? Sit down and do nothing but listen to music. Let yourself be moved by the melody and understand the story the lyrics tell. Put down your phone while you’re watching that new TV show you were excited for when you saw its trailer. Listen to an album in the order that the artist intended. Music has connected human beings throughout history and it deserves to be more than background noise.

Listen to your body

You know that everything hurts, but what precisely hurts and what does it feel like? Does your back hurt or does your right shoulder blade sting? Do a mental scan of your body and acknowledge the parts that ache and the parts that feel strong and supple. Take care of your body accordingly. It’s the only one you’re going to get, barring overnight medical advances that miraculously become available to and affordable to the public.

Listen to your mind

Many of us are so busy running from one thing to the next that we forget to check in with how we actually feel. Are your thoughts racing or does your mind feel blank? Do you have a thousand ideas that you can’t write down fast enough or is your imagination dry? Are you so bogged down with worry that you feel like you can’t breathe? Listen to what you’re thinking and do what works for you, be that meditation, taking a nap, going for a walk, or other forms of self-care.

Listen to what you read

As the popularity of social media and Internet-based texts increase, so does scanning. The amount of reading material available is overwhelming and in order to sort through it, scanning becomes a necessity. Once you have scrolled through countless titles and settled on something, are you actually reading it? If someone asked you a question about the article or book you just read, could you answer them intelligently? When you find yourself scanning, reading aloud may help. And for the love of all that is holy, read the entire article before posting it on social media.

Listen to strangers

Listen to the sales associate. Be patient with the barista. Listen to see if your server says, “Hi, how can I help you?” before you answer, “good, thanks”. Say “thank you” when someone holds the door open for you. It is possible to be kind while keeping your wits about you in public.

Listen to yourself

When was the last time you thought about what you want? I’m not talking about the “treat yo’self” mentality (a retail quick fix), but the bigger picture. Do you want to travel, pursue higher education, or start your own business? Do you really, really want to adopt a dog? Giving those dormant thoughts voice will bring them to the surface of your daily life and transform them into goals.

Listen with all your senses

Listening involves more than just hearing. Have you ever taken the time to really look at your street? What does home smell like? What does it feel like to press your feet into the ground on your way to a night out with friends? What does the perfect cup of coffee taste like? What does the feeling of confidence feel like? What about dejection? What about joy?

Many claim that the rise of technology and social media have made us bad listeners, but they may even enhance listening. The Internet makes it possible to talk with or text someone on the other side of the world at the press press of the button. Listening is a human skill that must be practiced like any other. And like any skill, it deserves your focus. By truly listening each day, we can connect to our loved ones, ourselves, and our world.