Listening well


We all want to be listened to.

Because to be heard is to be seen. And being seen confers honour, identity and belonging.

Therefore, listening is an act of generosity and kindness. It affirms our humanity.

But especially in our current age, it requires a choice. Being intentional, because listening doesn’t just happen. We’re out of the habit.

So what can we do to be more generative in our listening?

Be heard

Yes. You did read that correctly…

We can’t listen well if we don’t have the experience of being listened to ourselves.

This might sound like the wrong place to start, but if we are running on empty then it shows up in how we are present. Our listening becomes about meeting our own need and that’s not healthy.

Part of being heard is about slowing down enough to listen to ourselves. Practising kindness and generosity inwardly. Paying attention and not running past issues and aspirations that need space to breathe.

However, it also hinges on our being in the place of healthy relationships with others. Receiving the wholesome experience of being listened to. Being seen.

Even if that is only one person, and that at a distance.

Over the years I hadn’t realised how isolated I had become and the impact it was having. Until it changed. And then I recognised the void…

Don’t give up and settle for less than your humanity was made for. It’s a false economy and you’ll be short-changing others.

Slow down

Listening isn’t a race. We don’t win by getting to the answer first.

In fact, hurry and listening aren’t compatible. This doesn’t mean that listening has to take a long time. It’s an attitude and a sense of ease. You know when you’ve experienced it.

When we are truly listening, we don’t take ownership of the problem. It isn’t ours to solve – we are merely accompanying the other. Which is often far more powerful than we realise.

However, this doesn’t mean passivity or becoming a sponge, absorbing everything. Listening is relational and involves all that we are. And each of us is different.

It’s important that we take time to find our pace. The rhythm that enables us to listen with the quality we want to give.

Turn off the noise

We’ve got so used to distractions, we’ve ceased to recognise the damaging effects. They are just part of the environment – the water we swim in.

But they are wreaking havoc with our capacity to listen.

So turn off the noise. Have some hush – at least internally.

After my surgery for breast cancer in 2018, which came on top of a raft of other personal challenges, I found my sensitivity to noise went through the roof. I am a quiet sort of person anyway, but this was heightened dramatically.

Turning off notifications. Limiting my exposure to the news. Building in more quiet space was crucial.

And it had other benefits too. I could hear more. Not quantity, but quality. It also brought a simplicity that had been absent for so long.

Noise is internal as well as external.

Each of us has our own threshold, but we’ve operated on over-ride for so long that we’ve forgotten to check the gauge.

Try an experiment – turn down the dial and see what happens…

Savour the moment

Listening is more than an exchange of words. It’s about being present, in the moment, open to all that unfolds.

Relationships are built on the quality of our conversation. What is real in the moment, which we will miss if we’re not there.

Because words accompanied by emotion and gesture tell us so much more. They speak loudly at a whisper and are clues as to what lies beneath.

Meaning is more than information. And we have the privilege of encountering it only if we are present.

Otherwise, all we have is a parody.


I don’t take your words
Merely as words.
Far from it.

I listen
To what makes you talk –
Whatever that is –
And me listen.

Shinkichi Takahashi, translated from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk and Takahashi Ikemoto, included in Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds, Bloodaxe Books, 2007


Slowing down to listen involves a choice. Because you can’t listen to everyone.

This is hard. But it is also real.

In the days when the world was smaller and circles of relationship more geographically based and more tightly defined, then this was far less of an issue.

But now we are super-connected and everyone can be a ‘friend’.

We can let social media algorithms choose for us, or we can be more intentional.

I vote for the latter, but I don’t always know how to do it, or where to start.

However, I have learnt to give myself permission to focus, to say I will give myself to that person or that group. Knowing that in doing so I am also making the decision not to face in another direction.

This can be guilt ladened if we let it.

Instead, we have a choice to recognise and honour our humanity. Our finitude and limitations. Not as a failure, but as the glorious opportunity to listen to a few people really well, rather than engage in a superficial exchange with many.

We don’t have to be all things to all people. But we can model real listening for a few and see that multiply as people take the experience of being seen and heard, and offer it to others.

May you go well and listen with generosity and kindness, becoming the change that you want to see where you are


This week

Listening well is so powerful and yet simply underrated