It was the late 2000s, and I was with my brother, father and a friend in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a nature reserve in northern Minnesota and Canada.
The sun was almost completely down and we were simply relaxing after a fairly grueling day of travel and making meals.
I was listening to the soft rustle of wind in the trees and faint calls of birds, loons and other critters.
It was pure peace, for all intents and purposes.
As I admired the graceful, immense beauty of nature, I was struck by a powerful and somewhat alarming thought.
Most of the time, there was no such peace to be found where I’ve grown up and lived, in Illinois. Most of the time, there are car horns and truck motors blaring, light pollution covers every street and the smog of dirty air regularly chokes out some otherwise beautiful days.
But what dawned on me in that peaceful moment was something even more profound: I was able to enjoy my surroundings more because I was able to listen.
That luxury didn’t come around back home. If you live in a developed country (especially in a city), chances are you often experience the same.
In fact, the opportunity to listen is only something you can achieve (and therefore appreciate) when you cut out specific time for it.
What’s more, you have the best chance to listen when your surroundings facilitate it. It’s difficult to listen in a noisy, crowded environment. That’s why it’s silly to expect anyone to have a conversation of any legitimacy with you in a dance club, or a similar venue. It’s somewhat an extreme example, but even in the scenarios where we can and should be listening better, we don’t.
The power of listening is untold. So much so that if people truly listened and were listened to, our world might change overnight. This can sound like a ridiculously melodramatic proposition, but in many ways, most folks have never tried genuine listening. We never know until we try.
I’m positive there’s some characteristic or aspect of your life you would love to have people listen to better. I’m equally positive there are others out there who need your concern and genuine listening ears. The question remains: How can we listen better?
1. Cut out time just for listening
None of us can go very far with listening if we don’t make it a regular priority. Listening is such a deeply relaxing and transformative experience, when done well. Listening to silence or minimal sounds is a thought capable of scaring some, but everyone must embrace thoughtful listening if we are to continue making this world a better place.
Here is a fantastic talk Julian Treasure did on listening. It’s a great starting point for those who want to hear more about the benefits of intentional listening.
2. Listen to yourself
It’s vital to listen to yourself if you want to have any success in listening to others. Listening to yourself can be uncomfortable; it’s true. It can feel foreign and dangerous, especially if you haven’t done much of it before.
Listening to yourself is listening to both desires and fears; accomplishments and failures. You cannot complete true self-listening without looking at both sides of the coin. If you’ve never done much of this before, start small and build your way up. Here’s a good framework to use:
- Start by asking yourself what happened today (What went well, what went poorly, how you felt about each [just remember not to dwell too long on the bad stuff])
- Look back over your week when it’s over, and do the same thing (Also ask yourself how you can do better next week)
- Work your way up to deep, lifelong desires and fears (Marcus Buckingham says people never really change; they simply become more of who they already are – This means your fears and desires usually stay the same throughout life)
- Slowly but surely, start acting on what you’ve heard from yourself – Use the results to improve your life and the lives of those around you
Being able to conduct solid self-listening is what enables you to hear other people clearly.
3. Listen to others
Listening well to others is the highest achievement of listening. It takes real hard work, and nothing less. Listening to others and doing so with authenticity requires the same internal strength and tenacity equal to an extremely strenuous workout.
It’s such difficult, taxing work because you’re temporarily setting aside your own thoughts and feelings for those of someone else! It’s painful to do at times because there are countless other things you may rather be doing. Plus, the level of care you have for what the other person is saying may be low. This certainly doesn’t make it any more fun.
Listening is always worth it. Listening always improves a situation. Psychologists, counselors and relationship experts nearly universally point back to communication problems being the root of most blowups in dating relationships and marriages. When two people don’t listen effectively (to themselves and the other), the stage is set for worse things to happen.
So, how well do you listen? Who do you listen to? How often do you listen? They’re important questions to answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.