I don’t think that there is any skill more important to a human than the ability to listen.
Listening is the way we learn in the world. It’s not the only way that we learn in the world — visual experience is important, as is the experimental process of trial and error — but it is the way we learn from other humans. Even reading is basically a form of listening, listening to a voice that has been captured in text.
When we listen, our job is to take cues and enter them into our own understanding of the world. We expand our knowledge by converting the symbolic representations of ideas — words — and the context of those symbols — grammar and expression — into concepts that we can engage.
The efficiency in which we can do that work determines our success at listening. Our success at listening determines our success in the world. It is impossible to lead, to be a parent or be an artist without knowing how to listen, to give a three examples.
I love, love, love good listeners.
Bad listeners, I have found, are the ones who try to squeeze what I have to say into their own context, their own belief system, their own worldview. They listen to what affirms their own expectations and reject what doesn’t.
Great listeners, on the other hand, treat listening like telepathy. They work to understand what is being said on its own terms, working to enter into the meaning that the speaker is shaping. They intend to see through the eyes of another, to expand their own vision by understanding other perspectives. They soak in information and feeling like a sponge, able both to mirror someone else’s point of view and integrate that point of view into their own knowledge.
The better you get at listening, the more you can get from doing it. This comes at the cost of being subject to the transformation of your own views by new insight, rather than being centred in didactic and intransigent belief systems. Great listeners can never be fundamentalists holding on to an orthodoxy, rather they are people who embrace the ambiguities, contradictions, twists and shimmers of life.
Great listeners, you see, are people who are fun to play with, people who get the joke. When great listeners communicate together, they listen to how others respond to what they say, getting more and more effective in communicating, building shared ideas and visions. They tend to delight each other with surprising insights and twists, making connections across minds that crackle like sparks in the room.
Every listener has limits, of course. We only have so much time, energy and mind to share with others. We have our own needs and priorities. Beyond that, we also have the limits of our understanding. Some of these are differences in our experience of the world that are hard to bridge, hard to communicate, but some are the unhealed areas we hold.
When we hear something that brings up our own stuff, it’s easy to get defensive, easy to ignore or reject that viewpoint, easy to believe that the speaker is trying to hurt us. In that case, we often try to silence what is too difficult or challenging to hear.
This is why great listeners have to be great healers, able to face their own fears and pain to take in what they are offered as it comes. We learn to hear what someone means by what they offer rather than the hurt that comes with it, learn that when our own stuff comes up that is our responsibility to deal with, not something to blame on others.
To be a great listener, the first person we have to listen to is us. If we can’t engage our own thoughts and feelings, we can never get clear enough to engage the beautiful and powerful views that others can share with us. We never learn new ways to share our own ideas and experiences, which means we can never fully own them and are just a captive to our own feelings. There is a reason why a key part of recovery programs are learning to listen to others so we can learn to listen to ourselves.
I don’t think that there is any skill more important to a human than the ability to listen. Getting good at listening is getting good at taking what this world has to offer us, getting good at expanding our mind and heart to search for beauty, love and excellence.
Great listeners are great growers, able to be in the moment, to take the best from what is offered, to work together to shape shared possibilities, and to keep making the most out of what life gives them. Rather than throwing away what doesn’t fit their expectations, they accept the gifts of others to make their own world a richer place.
Listening, listening to others or listening to ourselves, is hard. And getting to the point where you can listen close enough to appear telepathic is very hard, though the more you do listen the better you get at it and the more you expand your capacity to listen.
But I can’t think of any more rewarding investment in this world than learning to be a great listener. How else can you actually have the privilege of seeing the world through other people’s eyes?
How else can you actually have the privilege of seeing the world through your own eyes?