When’s the last time you leaned in real close as a friend shared her heart? How often do you choose to keep your mouth closed when someone else is talking? Can you count past one hand how many times you have responded to someone’s words with a question rather than a story of your own?
These are the questions that I have been asking myself lately. And as I reflect on my daily interactions with others, I have had to wonder how often I listen, really listen when someone else is talking.
My own innate, often subconscious, desire to be understood and accepted manifests itself in desperate efforts to be heard, efforts that overshadow other people’s voices in conversation. Being heard, in and of itself, is not bad, but when it hinders my ability to help others feel heard, I’ve missed the mark.
I fear that, if you’re anything like me, we have forgotten the art of listening well, perhaps without even realizing we lost it.
A few months ago, I started taking stock of how I listened to others. I noticed that I listened, but not in a manner I had hoped. See, I wasn’t listening to the people around me—I was listening for pauses. In fact, I spent all of my listening energy trying to find a big enough, polite enough pause in the conversation around me so I could interject myself and focus the attention back on my voice.
I wonder if you can relate.
So many of us who are “pause-listeners” do this because we’ve placed an unbearable importance on being heard—somehow tricking ourselves into believing that our voice is only strong and meaningful so long as it’s heard often and loudly. And in the process, we’ve forgotten how to lean in, pay attention, take in the words of our friends, and seek to understand their experiences. We’ve forgotten that our ability to listen well often speaks so much louder than any amount of words we share.
But perhaps we can revive it again—this art of listening well—with a little patience and gentle care.
Most of us have heard at some point in our lives the danger of hearing versus listening. We hear a million little things a day, and in any given moment the sounds around us are all vying for our attention.
For example, the sound of my fingers against the keyboard; my dog’s tags clinging together as he paces the porch, following the squirrel from one tree to the next; the birds in the trees around me; the distant yet constant sound of traffic from highways that are a little too close for my liking; the occasional wind swaying through trees; the neighbor’s dog barking down the hours until his owner returns. I’m hearing it all, but I’m not listening to it. I’m aware of it, but I’m not taking it in, turning it over in my hands, and learning from it.
And sometimes that’s okay. But when a friend is sitting across from me, spilling her heart, it’s no longer enough to just hear, to just listen for pauses. No, I must listen, and not just to her voice, but also to the way her body shifts in the chair, how she gestures with her hands and fiddles with her phone case, the shift in her eyes from mine to the wall and back and away again.
We must listen well, because our full listening selves are a gift that is richer and sweeter than any other gift we can give our loved ones.
Listening well gives us an opportunity to love the people around us in a sacrificial way. In doing so, we quiet our own desires to be heard so that we can be fully present in someone else’s pain. We still our stories for an evening to celebrate a friend’s success. We sacrifice our need for validation in order to validate the experiences and stories around us. And along the way, we can hoist high the people we love the most, giving them an opportunity to be heard, really and truly heard, with a security that reassures them that their lives and their stories matter.
Listening well doesn’t mean we don’t ever get to share our own thoughts, stories, and words ever again, it just means that we learn to be comfortable in the ebb and flow. We learn to be okay shifting the attention away from ourselves and onto the people around us who need listening ears a little more than we do right now.
As women seeking to honor the stories of those around us, we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. And in doing so, we can become a soft and safe place for our loved ones to fall, and that speaks of our lives and validates our stories so much more than our own spoken words ever could.
Article by Angelina Danae | Photography by Hilary Hyland