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Sociability • Communication

The Art of Good Listening

The record of history is filled with people who grew famous for being very good at speaking. However, there is no comparably glorious roster of people who have been acclaimed for doing something equally or even arguably more valuable: listening properly. Our collective idea of participating in conversation has from the first been unfairly focused on what people manage to say, almost never on what they manage to hear.   

In a world where everyone seems to talk past one another, to genuinely listen is one of the most constructive and warm-hearted things we can ever offer another person – and a major building block of any worthwhile relationship. Friendship is the dividend of gratitude we are likely to want to offer a companion who can put aside their insistent concerns and make our own turmoils vivid in their minds for a time.

Painting by Henri Matisse showing a couple having a conversation. The wallpaper is bright blue and there is a view of the garden beyond.
Henri Matisse, The Conversation, 1908-12

Crucially, we do not – most of us – set out to be such poor listeners. We are so only by accident and for rather poignant reasons too: because no one has ever properly listened to us. We are trapped within a vortex of mutual disregard which makes every individual less likely to know how to appease another’s yearnings. What then might be some of the key moves that a good listener could make in order to reverse the collective slide towards universal deafness?

The first is to get better at offering encouragement to those who speak to us. Contrary to expectations, most of us do not naturally have a torrent of things we feel we want to tell others. Years of not being listened to take their toll. We easily feel we are boring and without much value. We have been hammered into assuming that our voices are not especially compelling and that our reflections do not merit sustained attention. We’re therefore likely to start a story with hesitation and then, looking around us furtively, to abort our mission at the slightest hint of tedium. ‘Oh it doesn’t really matter,’ we might say, before turning focus elsewhere. When we come close to something especially raw and fascinating, remembering how often such material hasn’t landed properly, we may be beset by an acute impression of offending those around us. ‘You can’t possibly find this interesting,’ we may insist, just as we approach a truly important detail we long in our depths to be understood for.

An early task of a good listener is therefore to help to reverse the self-suspicion of the speaker. When they feel their friends stumbling or losing confidence, good listeners will be ready with a swift and heartfelt ‘That’s so interesting’ or a tender-hearted and highly attuned ‘Go on…’ If the speaker were to say ‘this can’t possibly matter,’ the listener might need to more forcefully insist, ‘I want to hear more…’

Shaped by their unreceptive histories, speakers tend to rush over their accounts: ‘it was a difficult childhood I suppose…’ ‘Mum was often unwell at that time…’ ‘Dad can be a bit elsewhere when he drinks…’ The good listener intimates how much more lies beneath these summaries and is ready with follow up questions: ‘How did it make you feel?’ ‘Were there particular incidents that stuck out?’ ‘What was the house like at that time?’ These second order enquiries, however slight, provide the crucial, and so often absent, signal that tells the speaker: ‘I am here, I am engaged and I want to understand more’. Such curiosity has a transformative effect. In the right company, we start to feel more interesting to ourselves on the basis that we have managed to animate someone else. A pleasant friend is someone who says interesting things to us. A really great one does something yet more valuable; they help us to feel interesting to ourselves.

The single best way to lend a person the impression that we have properly heard what they have said to us is to return the gist of their meaning using slightly different words than the ones they employed. They might, for example, tell us: ‘Mum and Dad were keen to suggest that everything was fine, but all the children knew it wasn’t true. What’s more, the constant cheerfulness started to weigh on us because we suspected it was a sign of trouble…’ The good listener analyses the narrative and carefully repackages it in alternative but faithful language: ‘So it seems you were living under a lot of lies and that you began not to be able to trust the good times…’ We aren’t just told that someone has heard us; we have – in a well targeted precis – visceral proof that they have done so.

As they attend to a speaker, a good listener will become aware of how often painful and difficult material is being imparted without the layer of emotions that it rightly deserves. Stories of divorce, illness, death or poverty may be narrated in a factual way without their psychological impact being sufficiently explored – another legacy of having for too long been lived in a depleted environment in which one lacked the encouragement to feel what one was forced to endure. The good listener helps to return a raft of missing feelings to the speaker – be they of anger or loss, grief or melancholy. ‘That sounds really tough,’ the listener might say, drawing attention to what has been exiled through neglect. Or: ‘that must have hurt a lot.’ Or simply, with warm sad eyes, ‘I’m so sorry.’ A story that might often have been told entirely without affect suddenly starts to move the speaker themselves. They can – perhaps for the first time – directly experience the emotions that the prevailing inattention had denied them. There may be many tears.

In all this, there is one important move that good listeners don’t attempt: they don’t – however seductive it can appear – make any direct bid to solve the speaker’s problems. They step sharply back from what – at first sight – may seem like an obvious and kindly act, to reassure a friend and solve their difficulties. They don’t tell those worried about their employment that the dispute at work is sure to have a happy ending, they don’t give practical advice about how to find a better partner, they don’t rush to deliver a lecture on why a Stoic approach to pain always reaps dividends. They do something infinitely wiser and kinder; they let the speaker explore their own feelings of confusion and distress without a panicky urge to force a neatly-packaged resolution on them. They don’t allow their own anxieties around the expression of pain stifle their companions’ chance to let out necessary howls of agony. 

It’s easy to grow confused about what friendship – and the love that underpins it – might really involve. We will know we have found a friend worthy of the word when we feel patiently and quietly witnessed in our entirety; in all our painful and chaotic complexity. Friends sometimes ask one another what they might want for their birthdays. There is only one answer worth giving, a luxury and a privilege so great we may have lost sight of how much we long for it: to be properly listened to for an hour or so.

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