“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we are listened to, it creates us; makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl Menninger
Perhaps the most transformative experience we can offer to our relationships is in the gift of deep listening. This is often confused with the surface listening most of us are trained to do, where we focus our attention on the words being said and prepare ourselves while someone else is speaking with our response. Listening in this way makes a couple of big presumptions: that we are able to say what we mean with our chosen words and that the other person can get our meaning through those words. This often leads to miscommunications where it is easy to jump to conclusions or veer the conversation into an entirely different trajectory than was intended.
Deep listening, by contrast, requires us to listen into the spaces between the words. It is a much more visceral form of listening that requires us to develop both internal silence and more patience. This kind of listening is transformative both for the listener and the person being heard. Listening deeply in the body slows down our own nervous system such that we can give our full and undivided attention to the speaker.
When we offer “tell me more” into this space, we allow the speaker to unfold and discover themselves – what they need to say, and what they know and feel. Because we are invested not only in hearing their words, but feeling for who they are and what they might not have words to express, they feel loved.
Cultivating this ability to deeply listen grows as we become more comfortable with – and in fact surrender – to the deeper silences in ourselves.
Sitting in our own silence teaches us how to slow the mind’s hearing to the slower, natural speed of our ears. At this pace, our hearing sense allows us to move beneath the words to the meaning and emotion that often is wordless. Most everyone has had the experience of trying to convey feelings that don’t fit into words, so our expression often doesn’t describe what is happening nearly as accurately as our relationship to what is happening. This is how deep listening transforms, as it helps the speaker feel into the context of their own expression.
Listening is the most potent kind of loving patience we can offer to someone. It is easy to take a small part of what someone tells us and jump to a conclusion or want to share what we believe or know. Even when we think we know something, our knowing is not worth nearly as much as our patience to listen and let our friend discover their own knowing for themselves.
It takes time, sometimes a lifetime, to understand that telling someone something never really works. On the rare occasion that someone asks you “why” or “how” and is genuinely interested in your answer, you can tell them. But the most powerful learning always comes from within, when someone holds a space open for us to find the learning in ourselves.
Slowing down and giving our full listening attention to the people we love gives us the chance to heal and connect in a way that words cannot. It takes practice and dedication, but bringing the power of a loving silence into your relationships regularly gives the people you care about the chance to figure out what is inside of them. Listening better is a worthy, lifelong pursuit, and it is one of the most clearly understood ways that you can live into the words that are so easy to say: “I love you.”
Becoming a better listener means that we have enough of ourselves to not need to be in the front of the conversation, it means that we care enough to not tell someone what we know, but listen for what they are learning. It is one of the most advanced practices of love.