Excerpt from Chapter One

What Is Listening?

Are you listening, are you really listening? The answer to this question is usually yes-since asking the question automatically causes us to pay attention, to listen up. In thinking about it, though, we might also respond by saying it all depends what you mean by listening. Am I hearing the words? Am I understanding what I hear? Am I relating to what I hear? There are any number of ways to regard listening. It’s a skill that we take for granted. Of course we all listen to each other, but what do we mean when we say that? Many times we think that if we are not speaking we must be listening. It becomes part of our vocabulary of opposites: hot, cold; wet, dry; light, dark, listening, speaking.

However, something very interesting happens when people find out that I write, teach, and facilitate workshops on listening, that the name of my company is The Listening Center, or that I am the author of The Sacred Art of Listening. One of the first things they say is: “That’s wonderful! We could all learn to listen better.” This is quickly followed by: “Would you talk to my husband/wife/boss/kids/partner/sister/brother?” It seems we all know someone we’d like to listen to us better.

If this is true, that none of us feel that others listen to us in the way we’d like, what we are really saying is no one is listening well, including ourselves! In that case, all of us really do need to learn how to listen better--affirming the initial reaction to my work. How can we become more effective listeners? What are we looking for when we want to be listened to? There are no simple answers to these questions, but we can explore some ideas that are designed to:

create a new awareness of the importance of listening,
lead to more clarity about listening and
give us some practices to try out.

Think of the difference it would make if each of us really felt listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”1 There are some interesting statistics that validate this claim by Ernest Hemingway. Most of us spend about 45 percent of our waking hours listening, yet we are distracted, preoccupied, or forgetful about 75 percent% of that time. Marketing studies indicate that the average attention span for adults is 22 seconds. (Think about television commercials, which usually last 15-30 seconds.) When someone has finished speaking, we remember about half of what we heard. Within a few hours we can only recall about 20 percent. The number of adults who have had any training in listening skills is less than 5 percent of our population. It hasn’t been part of the curriculum in most schools.

After hearing these statistics, a business executive reflected: ”This is very interesting. I just realized that I spend a great deal of time preparing myself to speak. I don’t think I have ever prepared myself to listen.” Deep listening is a forgotten art.

Our families provide us with our first experiences in listening. Each of us has a certain style of listening based on our childhood environment. As we grew older and entered school, we discovered more sophisticated ways to communicate and developed additional styles of listening. Relationships with our peers added new habits and patterns. Unless we are one of the 5 percent who have had formal training in listening, we continue to pick up our skills from our surroundings, which may or may not be conducive to effective listening.

We are inundated with examples of poor listening in movies and on television. People are constantly interrupting each other. Shouting is used as a way to make a point or to convince someone to do something. Often the one who is supposedly listening to another person is actually working on the computer, writing a report, or engaged in some other activity. Resolving differences frequently involves physical or verbal violence. There are very few examples of peacemaking solutions. The use of sarcasm, humiliation, and putdowns is rampant. We are being educated in our communication skills by mass media. Learning how to listen well is left to us to discover on our own.

Another factor that adds to the importance of listening is that we live in a country that has enormous cultural and religious diversity. It provides us with one of the major challenges and opportunities of our time. We’ve become a laboratory for the world. If we can learn to live together in harmony here, it can be done anywhere. This calls for a way of listening that transcends words and belief systems. Learning to truly listen to one another is the beginning of new understanding and compassion, which deepens and broadens our sense of community. Listening is the first step in making people feel valued.
What is listening? There are many definitions—and we each have our own based on our personalities, backgrounds, and training. This book considers three ways to define listening, each of them more of a way to think about listening than the “right” answer.




Practicing The
Sacred Art of Listening
©2003 Kay Lindahl