For the near future, many of us will be guiding most of our conversations and exchanges in two dimensions. In this virtual-everything existence, there’s a lot of noise to cut through if we want to listen well.
But first, let’s differentiate the subtleties between listening and hearing.
Hearing, by nature is a passive action, done with our ears and brains; while listening is active, done with our minds.¹ Or you might think of it like this:
“Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.”
With the science-y stuff out of the way, we can move onto the fun parts.
What it Means to Really Listen
Listening is a learned behavior. We may hear our spouses ask us to keep workbooks and papers off the kitchen table, but if we listened, we might better understand all they really want is a comfortable, tidy home, absent piles of paper.
A former toxic boss of mine would famously berate employees by saying, “You’re not hearing me!” The truth is, everyone was hearing him, but few people were listening.
Drilling down, I subscribe to listening the way it was framed by Robert Greenleaf — grandfather of servant-leadership. He mused, wrote, and spoke about the concept often, mostly through the lens of organizational life. But Greenleaf’s ideas were so rich and so valuable, they have significant value beyond the workplace. In a long series of essays² he said:
“Listening might be defined as an attitude toward other people and what they are attempting to express. It begins with attention, both the outward manifestation and the inward alertness… The good listener remains in a position to assess the relationship among facts, opinions, attitudes, and feelings being expressed and is therefore able to respond to the total expression of the other person.”
I know that’s a sizable notion, but isn’t it brilliant? So few of us listen with attention, yet so many of us are frustrated when others don’t do the same in return. In the essays Greenleaf goes further:
“The inability to listen may be the most costly of human relations skills to be without.”
Please allow me to share three things you can ponder and practice today, right now, to bolster your listening.
#1. Go on mute — it’s a ‘stroke’ of genius.
Let’s start from a really practical place. As we continue living on Pandemic Planet — which will be the case for longer than we want to admit — one of the most powerful things you can do for others is to, quite literally, put yourself on mute.
For all of technology’s limitations, this is an easy, practical thing you can do right now, or on your next e-conversation. And I don’t simply mean sitting silently in a virtual visit, but actually making the effort to click that ‘mute’ button. I like to think of simple actions like this as strokes, in what Eric Berne suggests are units of “recognition when one person recognizes another person either verbally or non verbally.”
Pre-COVID, we could personify this action by leaning back, nodding our heads, and moving from a physical pouncing posture to one that’s more relaxed — all things which would indicate to our conversational counterparts that we are actively prepared to shut our yappers and listen to what they have to say.
This is helpful because now that we’re having most (if not all) exchanges and meetings via Zoom or other e-platforms, it’s more challenging. Often the most we see of other people are shoulders and heads scaled down into small, virtual boxes, so we can’t quite share — or rely on — full-body physical cues.
(Note: The cover image for this story is a picture of an actual Post-It I keep above my laptop. It’s a clear, constant reminder to hop on mute, shut my mouth, open my ears, and ride the silence.)
#2. Speaking of which… let’s think about silence as a thing, not lack of a thing.
Let’s move from practical to philosophical for this next idea — I promise it will make sense. We’re all familiar with the adage less is more, right? If you stretch it, that can apply in almost any situation, but what does it really mean?
When we’re writing fundraising letters at work, I usually jot down what I want to say, cut it in half, then half it again. When possible, I try to say more by saying less — if you can’t get people jazzed about an idea in two or three sentences, it’s unlikely you will in six or seven. This is true also with our voices. When you sing softly or even whisper, you need to expend more breath to do it properly — to create a quieter sound requires more effort, not less.
(Note: I studied vocal performance in my undergrad, and this was a difficult concept to practice, let alone understand.)
If we consider silence, it is the same. We should not think of silence as less of a thing (like sound), but more of a thing (like space) — a space we can fill with good attention, as Greenleaf suggested.
This may sound hokey, but I do this by picturing silence as an invisible presence that sits with me whenever I’m in a conversation, especially virtual ones. And because I think of silence as an actual thing — instead of a thing that is lacking — it serves as a really good reminder to practice silence. I borrowed this idea from Robert Sardello³, who wrote:
“Silence is palpable. It is a kind of subtle substance, which we can almost reach out to feel. And yet it is not there around us unless it is also here within us.”
Perhaps you can’t muster the idea of having an invisible friend as an adult, and that’s okay. Instead you can try something less inanimate. If you’re still working from home, put up your own Post-It as a reminder to be silent and listen. Or hold something in your hand, like a pen cap or a coin — anything to tether you to the moment.
If you need more convincing, Bradley Baurain proposes that we think of “silence as a phenomenon that creates and inhabits actual time and space,” and how we might cultivate “silence as a refuge from all the noise, or better, as a foundation for a more committed engagement with identity and otherness.”
#3. Listen and take note.
My memory isn’t what it used to be, and I used to try and remedy this by writing everything down. But doing so can quickly take us out of the moment when instead we should shut down distractions and lean into listening.
What I’ve begun doing, especially over this past year, is jotting brief notes during meetings and conversations. Just a word or two, here and there. If someone’s talking about a family experience or a specific idea, I take note — literally. Rather than scribing a full journal entry, I have come to realize that if one or two words don’t jog my memory later on, then the idea must not have been that noteworthy in the first place.
In her pivotal read⁴ from the 1990s, Madelyn Burley-Allen suggests making meaningful notes:
“You can improve your ability to learn and remember by making a brief record of the speaker’s main points. Review your notes later on to determine what you can put to use, and whether you agree or disagree with the speaker’s thesis.”
In her book, Buley-Allen points to Berne’s wisdom on strokes, which is masterful advice whether you think about listening in-person, online, or elsewhere. It’s a great way to wrap:
“Listening is one of the finest strokes one person can give another. When people have been listened to, they leave the encounter feeling that what they have said has been heard. When people don’t feel they have been ‘tuned out’ and have been listened to non-judgmentally and non-critically, they see themselves as worth of attention”
¹ I think of it like this publication; It’s Mind Cafe, not Brain Cafe — minds are psychological constructs, while brains are physiological.
² These ideas are pulled from the series On Becoming a Servant Leader; several hundred pages of Greenleaf’s essays which were edited into a book.
³ These words come from Sardello’s Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness. It’s a fantastic read, albeit a bit meditative and heady at times.
⁴ Burley-Allen’s book is called Listening: The Forgotten Skill, and it’s held its weight over the past quarter-century.