“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero
We all know how to hear. It’s automatic. Biologically, it is imperative for survival. If I yell “Look out!” in a crowd, I’ll get the crowd’s attention.
But listening—that’s an entirely different story. Listening is an art, an art that can be taught, learned, and practiced. And it is a skill that can be utilized, disregarded, or misused, but it is always and ultimately our own responsibility. How do we share this talent when engaged in conversation?
The unfortunate reality is that frequently in a verbal exchange, one person is relaying information while the other person’s mind is filled with judgment, criticism, bias, opinions, or other distracted thoughts. Maybe the listener is formulating a clever reply; they are filtering the words through their own lens, and maybe what the speaker is saying has triggered an emotional response. So many times, we may hear what someone is saying, but how often are we truly listening and understanding?
Socially, listening is crucial for commerce, emotional well-being, and even survival. Whether in a professional, personal, or emergency situation, cultivating your ability to effectively listen makes you more efficient, compassionate, and better able to connect with others, which leads to stronger relationships and a better, often more profitable, outcome.
At the deepest level, a powerful conversation—one that leads to deep understanding and insight—requires listening. There’s a direct correlation: Deeper listening leads to deeper understanding. This type of deep listening is determined by the “space” I am going to gift to the speaker. When I am triggered by what you say, I show it with a word, a scowl, a gesture, a glance, an almost imperceptible facial expression or contraction of the muscles in my body. I say almost imperceptible because in the interplay of dialogue, we each feel more than we know, whether we are conscious of this or not. The more I am triggered, the more I am about me and not the speaker. But if I gift the speaker “space,” I am clearing out my own agenda so that I can completely consider theirs. The more space I have, the more I can listen. If I can put my agenda completely aside, even temporarily, I can listen completely. Hence, listening is an active process that calls us to be fully engaged as the listener; yet paradoxically, it is impossible to truly listen to another unless we first listen to ourselves. Why? I need to know and put aside my own judgments, biases, and so on to make space for the speaker. Without “self-listening,” I cannot create space to be fully present to another. Without space, I merely hear. With space, lots of it if possible, I can truly listen and understand. This space allows us to be fully present to the other.
Let me break that down: It takes discipline to listen to and then quell the voice in our head that may be telling us that the person we are hearing is less intelligent or informed than we are, that they are on the other side of the political spectrum, that they are not trained, experienced, or educated enough in the topic they are discussing. Maybe we judge the speaker by their weight, clothing choice, accent, or level of attractiveness, or are biased against their ability to articulate, their skin color, nationality, or religion. All these filters clog our mental space and block our level of presence. To really listen, we must actively attend to what I call our “Percentage of Emptiness.”
Listening Is About Space and Emptiness
If I have zero percent emptiness then all I am doing is pushing my own agenda. The more I push, the less I hear. If I have zero percent emptiness, the only possibilities available to me are the ones in my head. If I have 50 percent emptiness, I have the space to listen and share my perspective. If, ideally, I can reach 100 percent emptiness, I can then observe, see, experience, and take in what is going on in the subtle as well as overt levels of the conversation—and my ability to respond, rather than react, increases proportionally.
On a simple scale, if I’m 50 percent empty, I have space for 50 percent more ideas or dialogue.
Emptying our minds, particularly before or during a challenging conversation, gives us more latitude to be open to new perspectives. The more space I have internally, the larger my “buffet of choice” grows. When I am not triggered by the speaker, creativity and innovation can blossom and new levels of collaboration can be imagined.
Listening is an art and takes practice. The practice of self-listening is critical to deep listening. The more I can listen to another person, the more I can learn and understand. In my experience, if I can help my clients learn how to listen, observe, and understand deeply, they are more likely to make wise decisions. And there’s nothing more profitable than wise decisions.