How To Listen

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Steven Covey, Author of: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

What is Good Listening?

I used to think that being a good listener meant not interrupting, staying silent while the other person talked. I wasn’t sure if I was a good listener, though people often said I was. Then several years ago, during some counselling training, I took part in an exercise which including listening silently while a partner talked for five minutes

Many people found staying silent difficult, but for me the hardest part was when it was my turn to talk. Speaking for five minutes with no feedback felt disconcerting – and in fact, we were taught to make comments such as, “Yes,” or “Mmm,” when there was a natural lull, rather than stay completely silent.

Many people believe, as I did, that to be a Good Listener we should be silent, not interrupt, really pay attention to the other person. In many ways this is preferable to interrupting and to the type of listening in which we are really just waiting for “our turn” and only hearing half of what the other person says.

Why we interrupt

Sometimes we stop people speaking because we think we know what they are about to say and we don’t want to hear it, or because we think we know better. The comedy series Frazier made good use of this trait, with Frazier getting into several messes because he stopped someone else from talking – usually his uneducated dad, who couldn’t possibly know stuff. But it’s not always funny when we do this; it can be painful and disconnecting.

In her book, I Need Your Love – Is That True?, Byron Katie suggests we pay attention to when we interrupt people, and silently say to ourselves: “I’m not letting you finish the sentence because…”

She also lists some things people discovered when they did this exercise. Here are a few:

“…I already know where you are going, and I have something more clever to say.”

“… I might forget what I have to say and lose this opportunity to impress you.”

“…you’re having such a hard time expressing yourself, I’m going to rescue you by saying it better.”

Pretending to Listen

Often, we pretend to be listening to someone speak when in fact, we are listening to the thoughts inside our own minds. Then, instead of being honest and admitting we haven’t heard, we try to cover up. I sometimes explore this when writing fiction. Below is an example, a scene from my novel Drawings In Sand. Stella is in a meeting, but has had such a fraught day her mind is still on that, rather than on what her colleagues say.

Everyone else began firing ideas. Stella was back in her classroom, screaming at kids, close to tears, with her nightmare creeping in and out of her head. She knew after the first explosion that she had to get back in control. But she couldn’t. 2F burst through the door before she had finished with her register class, and she yelled at them to stay out. She heard whispers as the classes passed in the doorway. 2F were suitably cowed at first, but it didn’t take them long to test just how psycho she was.

With 2F you could expect it: the clay throwing, the shouting, but it went on and on. 2B were the best-behaved kids ever, yet she’d turned them into monsters. She was the worst teacher in the world. The kids would go home and tell on her. Tell their mums and dads, or mums’ bidie-ins, that Missis Noble had gone pyscho. They called her Mrs Noble, as if she was married. Even though their mums had bidie-ins, they couldn’t imagine that a teacher was the same, couldn’t imagine that anybody over thirty hadn’t been married at least twice. But no one would ever have her now. Macklin had gone again. Fed up with her, and no wonder.

They were speaking to her. Judy was asking her a question; no, Mark was. Both of them were, at once. “What do you think?”

“Em, yes, that will be fine.”

“Which version? The first or second?”

“The second sounded better, I think.”

“That’s a majority vote now, so we’ll go with the second,” Edith said.

Stella has no idea what she’s agreed to. Not interrupting and paying attention does at least stop this kind of confusion, and means we are less at risk of making huge mistakes like Frazier does.

Byron Katie suggests that we experiment with true listening – stop interrupting and listen to what our children, spouses, friends or colleagues have to say. She writes: Your understanding of another person is limited by what you think you already know. So when you just listen, the person won’t match your preconception. The exciting thing is that you usually meet someone much wiser and kinder than you expected.

She also says self-perception may change. You become a true listener, an open and genuinely interested person. It’s hard not to be interested when people keep surprising you and showing that they have more to offer than you expected.

Your understanding of a person is limited by what you think you know. ~ Byron Katie

Losing Ourselves when Listening

Occasionally, something weird happens when we listen to other people – we forget to listen to ourselves. I know I’m not alone in sometimes feeling as if I’ve forgotten myself when I’ve been listening fully to someone else – particularly if that person is going through a hard time. This type of listening generally leaves us feeling exhausted and frazzled afterwards – because we have been ignoring our own needs in an attempt to meet someone else’s.

Mindful Listening

There is another way to listen, one that includes listening to the other person and to yourself; a way that says you matter equally. Ironically, to do this, we let go of ideas of “them” and “me.” We also need to let go, as much as possible, of judging what we hear or perceive – and instead just observe.

This is how it goes:

Two businessmen talking on outdoor bench

Imagine we are having a conversation and I am listening while you talk. While I listen to you, I also check in with me. I notice my thoughts about what you say and I notice the sensations in my body. I let the thoughts come and go, and I know that they aren’t The Truth, but just stuff floating through my head.

So if, for instance, a thought comes, “This is boring,” I have choice. I can believe that thought, and interrupt you, or I can notice that when I have the thought, “This is boring,” I feel restless and want to change what is happening. I can consider what it might be like to listen without that thought. I might even realise that observing my reactions and thoughts is quite interesting in itself! And so, I stop feeling restless and become willing to hear what you say, instead of judging it before I’ve heard it.

I’ll be honest– sometimes I do this type of listening, and sometimes I forget. But when I remember, life is much more enjoyable.

When we listening mindfully, the other person matters, and so do we.


  1. I smiled at the list of “reasons we interrupt” – particularly the wanting to look clever one. When I’m being honest, there is a lot of truth to that urge – combined with a bit of “I don’t want to forget my point” – which ties back to the first because listening should really be about hearing what the other is saying, not interjecting for the sake of doing so.

    The idea of listening for five minutes and talking for five minutes is interesting. The thought of talking – and having someone listen to me for five minutes straight without interruption is equal parts exciting and unnerving – which is likely a sign I should find more opportunities where that can happen.

    A great post to end “Listening Month” on. Thanks!

    1. Author

      Yes, Louise, I’ve definitely done that thing of wanting to look clever too! And thinking I might forget so I need to say it now! Regarding listening and talking for five minutes (or longer) – I now go to a self-inquiry group where we do this with the intention of observing both the talker and our internal responses. It’s enjoyable in that setting, not sure how I’d feel in a different setting! So maybe like you, it’s time for me to find more opportunities!
      Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. The trouble with most people is that they see listening is a way to get one up on someone else. It is a way to defend their positions. To listen, we have to stop being combative.

    1. Author

      Michelle, yes, that’s exactly it – to fully listen we need to stop being combative. One time in the mindful inquiry group, I noticed my instant reaction was subtle resistance to whatever anyone said. So I let that go, and found it interesting!

    1. Author

      Thanks Radnika, glad you liked the post! I have read yours too, and enjoyed it.
      And yes, the inner voice does wander around a lot. I find it best just to observe rather than try to shut it up, because then it’s less inclined to fight back!

  3. Oh this post has such great information and as always, you cover it all so beautifully Yvonne!

    All so true… And I find myself doing several of the things you shared here. It’s really about stepping outside of ourselves and truly focusing on the other person, honoring their voice and what they are sharing- by setting aside our needs and desires to meet theirs.

    It’s a lot of work…. BUT it is incredibly fulfilling too.

    1. Author

      Thanks Chris. We all do these things and I think just accepting that is a good start! It’s just the human mind.

      I’d say that in part the type of listening you describe – setting aside our needs to meet someone else’s – is what I meant when I described how sometimes I lose myself when listening to someone else. And it’s exhausting. We don’t need to set aside our own needs – actually we can’t because they are needs – to meet someone else’s. (Though we might be able to set aside desires.) You matter too, not just the other person!
      You also mentioned stepping outside of our “selves,” and that does help, I think, to be able to observe. When we pay attention to our own inner process – thoughts, feelings etc, as well as what the other person says, then there’s a different dynamic.

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