Listening Well

How do we recover the lost art of listening? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Nevertheless, here are three practices to begin with, which will lay the foundation to listening well. Effective listening requires the 3As of attention, appreciation and affirmation.

As noted in the last post (reflection), to listen well we must first forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention (the submersion of self, immersion of the other).

Begin by tuning in, paying attention to what the other has to say. Put no barriers between you. Switch your mobile phone to silent mode and do not respond to any flickering message. Turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, ask your kids to play in the room, shut door of your office. Look directly at the speaker and concentrate on what he or she has to say.

In the words of Mike Mason, as in the title of his book, in so doing you will be “Practicing the Presence of People.” (A book worth reading – bite-size, devotional, heartwarming and practical). David Benner, in his book, Sacred Companions, calls it, practicing “soul hospitality” – when we make space for people in our hearts by giving the gift of our presence, of safety and of love. (Another book worth reading, more solid and stimulating).

Practice listening to all with the sole intention of understanding what person is trying to express. People need to talk – and be heard – to feel understood by and be connected to you. Better listening isn’t about a set of techniques but with you making sincere effort to pay attention to what’s going on in another person’s private world of experience. A note of caution: You cannot pretend for long – an automatic smile, a hit-and-run question or a restless look in your eyes – all these are giveaways that show you aren’t quite interested in listening.

With attention given, the next thing to focus on is appreciating the other person’s point of view. Most people won’t really listen or pay attention to your point of view until they become convinced that you have heard and appreciated theirs. The best way to be heard then is to listen to the other point of view. Invite the person to say what’s on his mind, what his opinion is or how he feels about the issue under consideration – and then give your full attention. 

Here are some examples of how we can probe so as to appreciate a person’s point of view:

  • Can we talk about …? What do you think we should do?
  • I’m not sure I really understand how you feel about … What is your point of view?
  • So, what you are saying is … Is that right?
  • I’m sorry we had this misunderstanding. I’d really like to hear what happened as far as you are concerned.
  • I think I understand what you are saying, but I want to be sure. Do you mean …?

Anytime you demonstrate a willingness to listen with a minimum of interruption, impatience, criticism or defensiveness, you are giving the gift of understanding – and earning the right to have it reciprocated.

Listening well is often silent but never passive. You can get involved actively by asking specific questions that help the other person express his feelings or elaborate on what he is thinking.

Here are some other examples:

  • It sounds great. What was the best part?
  • What did you feel like saying to her?
  • What does he do that bothers you the most?
  • What do you think she should do?
  • What would you have liked to hear him say?

After appreciating the other person’s point of view through the process of probing, the third step is to affirm your understanding. Without some sign of understanding, the speaker begins to wonder if what he or she is saying makes sense, if it’s worth talking about. A failed response is like an unanswered WhatsApp, email or letter. 

The best way to promote understanding is to take time to restate the other person’s position in your own words, then ask her to correct or affirm your understanding of her thoughts and feelings. An example: Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You feel that you’re always the one who calls when you get together, and that make you wonder if (so and so) really want to spend time with you. Is that right?

When we show appreciation and affirmation, we are tapping into the power of empathic listening, which is the power to transform relationships. When people experience deep feelings and these feelings take shape in words that are shared and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood – and a grateful feeling of shared humanness with the one who understands.


Listening is the art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between people. The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into experience of another. Empathetic listening builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who understands and cares, and thus confirms that our feelings are recognizable and legitimate.

Empathetic listening not only strengthens relationships but fortifies the sense of self also. In the presence of a receptive listener, we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel; and thus able to listen to ourselves also. Our lives are coauthored in dialogue, dialogue that is marked by recovering the lost art of listening.