The first duty of love

is to listen.

- Paul Tillich

very human being exists in a universe of one. Inside each of our heads is a reality that we alone understand and that we alone experience. Stored in our minds are all the moments we have been us, by ourselves, trying to figure out who we are and why it matters. All these moments coalesce to make up our inner world. While we may share many beliefs and much day-to-day activity with others, we are utterly disconnected from everyone around us. This truth cannot be overstated. We cannot read the minds of others to know for sure what they are about. Nor they ours. The positive side of this truth is that we have privacy within while we tinker with the design of that personal universe. The down side encompasses both the loneliness of doing it while isolated from others and the fear that we are doing it all wrong.

This is where listening comes in.

When done well, listening grants a grand boon to two people. The listener is allowed a glimpse of the speaker’s universe, and it is beyond reassuring to be able to compare another’s interior designing process to one’s own. And the speaker is provided with a witness to their internal work who can stipulate that the work appears to be at least understandable and maybe even impressive. Even though these reassurances do not fully close the existential gap between any two humans, they provide us with sufficient reality testing to allow us to keep on truckin’.

Now here's an interesting point. Stop for a moment to think about whether or not you “listened” to what I was saying in the preceding paragraphs. Did you skim over the material assuming that it was of moderate relevance or hurry through it because you feel constantly pressed for time? If asked, could you paraphrase what you just read? My point here is that we all – myself included – float over both the verbal and written text of our lives with little time spent practicing the important act of stopping to register and to think.

The existential task of creating our unique internal reality it too important to leave too much of it to our preconscious minds. We need to up the percentage of our day that we spend paying attention and thinking.

And because human psychological growth happens in connection with others, and listening well creates connection, we need excellent listening skills in order to grow.

A couple of caveats upfront: We don’t always have to listen, and you probably know most of this already.

Sometimes people are just nattering on and we only have to lend them half an ear. When someone is talking about himself in a vulnerable and serious manner, however, he is creating himself, real time, in front of you. To treat that cavalierly is to create a double loss. You will both lose any existential insight that might result from an effective conversation, and you will each lose the potential deepening of the intimacy between you.


I and Thou

- Martin Buber

You Just Don't Understand

- Deborah Tannen

That's Not What I Meant

- Deborah Tannen

Women's Growth In Connection

- Judith Jordan, Alexandra Kaplan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver and Janet Surrey


If you decide to listen, you will want to do it well, so even though much of this material will be familiar to you, I have gathered some concepts and tips about good listening skills here for you to review.

And please understand, when you decide to listen, you are signaling a willingness to participate in a sacred human ability. Listening is something that only humans can do because thinking out loud is an exclusively human trait. Other animals hear, only humans listen.

Conceptual truths about listening

The best conversations occur when one person is willing to think out loud and the other is willing to deeply attend. This is hard work on the part of both participants. The speaker has to take the risk inherent in presenting material that is a work in progress – because we humans are always a work in progress. The listener has to engage all the skills listed below. (BTW, this process of discovery and intimacy underlies all good therapeutic relationships, with clients bravely verbalizing their current thinking and clinicians providing expert listening. The very important point here being that, in good therapeutic relationships, both the client and the clinician will be expanded by the encounter.)

The goal of listening is to understand the subjective other in order to perceive a small corner of their worldview map. This phenomenological stance, the subject of much existential writing, endeavors to perceive a first-person point of view describing the experiences of the other as the other. In other words, this pure listening stance signals to you that your listener is not only curious about – but also focused on – the phenomenon that is you. It also stipulates that what the listener seeks is an updated understanding of the speaker as of this moment in time. (For an introduction to the concept of phenomenology see:

Coming to understand another as the result of skilled listening always involves stretching to become slightly more than you were before the conversation. If you rightly believe that everyone has something to teach you, you will naturally approach a conversation with a willingness to take in new material. Put another way – true listening requires curiosity, and curiosity is only possible if you are willing to be changed by an encounter.

I want to reiterate here what I have written elsewhere that thoughtful listening does not imply agreement. We listeners are entitled to disagree with the thoughts of our speaker, but only after we are sure we have completely understood his or her message. Too many folks feel the need to jump in instantly with a crisp rebuttal the moment they find the speaker’s position untenable. It is absolutely possible to listen thoroughly, provide empathy and absorb the other’s perspective without losing your commitment to your own perspective. Conversation is neither a competition nor a zero sum game.

Good listening skills provide the opportunity for as total a connection between two humans as is possible. Because it spans the three domains of human experience – behavioral, affective and cognitive – when we well and truly pay attention to another person we are offering them all of ourselves. Our behavior is stilled as we commit to quietly listening. Our emotions are activated as we strive to use them empathically. And our thinking is engaged as we undertake the work of decoding the material being presented to us. If the speaker is willing to share deeply and we have the skills to patiently attend, the existential gap between us will narrow, providing an extremely high level of intimacy. For a lovely treatise on building a genuine encounter with another person, see I and Thou by Martin Buber.

Skills for good listening

Let’s start with the physical. Skillful listening requires settled attention. That means you should take a moment to get comfortable, calm your thoughts and relax your body before you signal that you are ready to listen. To maintain the peaceful pose while the other person is talking, sometimes a break in the listening action is required in order to take care of any distractions or discomforts. (Note: It is not impossible to listen well while walking with the speaker or while doing simple tasks together, but it is much, much more difficult. The highest level of listening occurs in a quiet, pleasant place with the two participants at rest.)

On an emotional level, the listener works to connect with the feelings that the speaker is demonstrating or that the material being presented would typically evoke. That will require the listener to put the material in the context of the speaker and to imagine the resulting emotional charge for that person. Empathy is only possible if one has inside themselves a rich codex of feelings that they have experienced first hand to use as reference material. Without that, the emotional overlap between the one talking and the one listening will take on a primitive, mad-sad-bad-glad quality.

Another emotional challenge a listener faces is trying to feel out the expectations of the speaker, both with respect to the speaker's content (what is being spoken about) and also the over-arching sense of wishful thinking that the speaker has for her universe. For example, it is good to wonder about what the speaker hopes will result from her conversation with you – agreement, feedback, sympathy, humor, suggestions and so on. Also, what do the words being spoken suggest about how the speaker wants her universe to be? These aspirations will be expressed in fragments of emotions that the listener will weave together to create a sense of what the person talking wants from this conversation and from her world. This second emotional challenge requires a fairly significant level of existential intelligence in order to engage in the necessary meta-affective process. A gnarly but thorough article to read to enhance your existential intelligence is this one.

You can see, then, how emotional intelligence is also paramount in an effective listener. This psychological construct is easy to comprehend and, because the human brain is designed to be highly emotional, it actually takes very little effort to develop.

Cognitively, in order to be a good listener, you have to be willing to work your mind extremely hard. If you start with the understanding that the speaker is an authority on himself and his universe (which is the subject of much feminist writing), you will realize that all conversations are, to some degree, cross-cultural. The reality of the person doing the talking will manifest in its own language, with familiar words being used in slightly different ways. We must, as skilled listeners, fight the tendency to presume to know just what they mean. Because the only way to access another’s universe is through language, we must strive to be slightly bilingual. In other words, we listeners need to think about what the other chose to say, how she or he chose to say it and what that might mean. A simple example would be use of the word “embarrassing.” If someone is telling us about a situation that we think would be about a seven on the Great Embarrassment Scale of Life, we have to think about whether or not the speaker would have the same reaction as we would. Even if the speaker says “I was embarrassed," we don’t know what intensity they mean without clarifying. Women tend to be very good at calibrating words with questions like: “Do you mean forgot-someone’s-name embarrassed or wardrobe-malfunction embarrassed?”

If we are trying to think like expert listeners, it behooves us to pay attention to where our thoughts are going as we are listening. Are there any cognitive functions going on inside us that might distort the material that the speaker is trying to transmit? For example, are we generating hypotheses about the speakers correctness, intelligence, sophistication and so on as we are "listening?" If so, we might want to check those conjectures at the door. Is our mind triggered into thinking about a tangential topic? Is our mind just wandering? It's worth repeating here that it is taxing to listen to another with all your cognitive apparatus focused on their words.

Good listeners continually remind themselves to wonder rather than assume. It's harder than you may think to not presume that you know what the speaker "really" thinks or "really" means or "really" intends. But, to the extent you can minimize those assumptions, you pave the way to contributing to an extremely fruitful conversation.

To summarize, it’s helpful to think of good listening practice involving the following steps: settle, bracket, open emotional codex, engage naïveté, and clarify.

• Settle: this physical commitment to being ready to listen reminds you to up your listening game and signals the other that you are ready to do so.

• Bracket: to bracket yourself back means to temporarily withhold your judgments. It doesn’t mean to not have judgments – for as Camus reminded us: To breathe is to judge. It means to hold them back far enough in your mind that they don’t interfere with your willingness and ability to understand the point the speaker is trying to make. Bracketing back your view of the world will help you avoid double vision as you try to imagine the world being described to you.

• Open emotional codex: Even though we know that feelings come from the brain, this step feels like it is located in the human heart. When you open your heart – your emotional range of experience – and ready it to serve as an empathic guide to your listening, you are preparing yourself to share the emotional world of another. This is a generous act because both negative and positive feelings will be part of the mix. You are giving up your peace of heart to enter into their, perhaps very unpeaceful, universe. If your codex is a little on the lean side, take some time to enhance this part of you with some reading and discussions with others.

• Engage naïveté: This step will allow for the process of seeing through the eyes of the speaker. What this means is that you predecide not to presume. No matter how basic the wording the speaker is using, double check as you are listening to see if there might be another way to interpret the words. If there is any doubt, clarify.

• Clarify: It takes courage, patience and creativity to communicate back to the speaker requests for clarification. It may feel stilted to use phrases such as “Do you mean” and “Are you saying,” but the speaker will be gratified that you are working to understand her. There is, however, one caveat…you have to also demonstrate the fact that while you are listening you are also working on putting what you are hearing into the context of this particular person. If you do nothing but ask elementary questions, you will be annoying. And probably hurtful. So don’t ask things you should already know about this person or that you should be able to figure out with a little thought.

(N.B. It is important to understand the rules of eye contact when listening. People erroneously believe that you have to maintain near-constant eye contact when you are talking and when you are listening. That is not true. That is a stare down. What is supposed to happen is: the speaker looks away while talking with occasional “check-in” moments of eye contact. By looking away, the speaker frees the listener to look carefully at the speaker, which allows the listener to harvest all the rich, nonverbal sources of information about the person speaking such as facial expressions, body posture, gestures, etc. The listener will look away if she wants to grant the speaker privacy during an awkward moment, if she needs a moment to think about something the speaker said or if she wants to signal that a break in the action is coming. Let me reiterate this important point. Do not stare at someone when you are talking. That behavior sets up back channel chatter within the listener that sounds like this: “Oh, wow. I’m being stared at. Should I break eye contact or keep looking? I don't what him to think I'm not listening. This is getting uncomfortable.” It’s very hard to listen well when your mind is chattering nervously.)

Talking styles

A message to continuous talkers: If you are one of those gifted entertainers who can roll from one amusing anecdote to another with nary a breath in between, please keep this thought in mind – not everyone in the room bought a ticket to your show. So here’s a key question for you – what makes the difference between an entertainer and a bloviator? An intermission. People can be entertained by amusing anecdotes, true, but it is just smart to stop between stories to give other folks a tiny space within which to insert their own stories or to tactfully escape your gravitational pull to go find someone who listens better.

A message to fast talkers: People who think fast and speak fast need to build into their conversational style pauses that can let others catch up to what they have been saying and to slip their contributions into the discussion. It’s key to remember that the quiet pauses don’t have to be awkward. If you are alert to the need to give frequent breaks to your listener, you can learn to use those breaks to breathe, relax your body, think about what you’ve just said, tune up your empathy and contemplate that acronym: W.A.I.T. (Why am I talking?)

A message to slow talkers: You are absolutely entitled to enter into conversations at your own speed. But please remember that during a break in the chatting, we cannot tell by looking at you whether you are thinking about what to say or are just listening happily to what we are saying or are letting your mind wander off on another trail altogether. We also cannot tell from the outside if you even want to speak. It would be helpful to us if you could indicate in gesture or words that something will be coming from you in the near conversational future. Hints that you are preparing to participate will help us be much better listeners for you.


To some extent, cursory listening is both unavoidable and acceptable. No one could possibly maintain the steady focus of active attention across the board. But it would be nice to learn to listen well so that we can switch on that skill when we want to participate in the intimacy of deep conversation. It is also satisfying to be practiced enough to be able to drop into a quick, bond-building listen at a moment’s notice.

When we choose to attend closely to another, we are sending them a message of love. It is beyond generous when we agree to replace the cold silence of the Cosmos with the warmth of reflective listening.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.