Reclaiming the Lost Art of Listening

My good friend Sarah recently repeated this conversation to us, and we laughed until we could laugh no longer.

“Hi, how are you?” the next-door-neighbor asked Sarah.

“I’m dying, thank you,” Sarah replied in an even tone of voice.

“Great!” the neighbor responded heartily. “Do you want to come with me to the one-day-sale downtown?”

It’s a sad fact of modern living. I call it the lost art of listening. We have more ability to communicate than prior generations could have ever imagined. Yet we have less communication than ever.

I remember seeing my grandfather marvel at the awesome power of the fax machine about two decades ago. “He puts the paper inside of it in California, and it comes out here in New York!?” He exclaimed incredulously. Can you imagine what he would have thought of my cell phone with caller-ID, instant messaging, and pod casting?

The vast array of technological means of contacting others, regardless of their location, is absolutely incredible. One would imagine that relationships are strengthened, and more close friends are gained. However, the alarming statistics of divorce, low self-esteem, and loneliness tell another story. How is it possible, that in the twenty-first century, the art of communication is at an all-time low?

Perhaps the many facets that are available to us impede our level of focus. After all, how easy is it to have a conversation with your spouse while simultaneously answering the phone and responding to an instant message? In addition, the doorbell is ringing, incoming emails are beeping, and the TV is broadcasting!

Simply reading those sentences is sufficient to send my head spinning!

When the opportune time presents itself for a conversation, what are you doing? Do you have a habit of impatiently waiting for your child to finish his thoughts, so that you can add your words of wisdom? Perhaps you are looking at your watch in anticipation of the next appointment, catching up on your emails, and checking the list of missed calls on your cell phone.

The only constant within the field of communication is that it always takes two to tango. People will respond to the tone of your voice and the pace of your conversation by matching your manner of speech. Have you ever spoken with someone who has laryngitis, and noticed that you are whispering? We respond in kind to the way in which we are spoken.

As a result, when you change your method of communicating, the people with whom you relate will start to change their method of communication. Imagine if you became a better listener today, and several months down the road you influenced ten people to improve their listening techniques, who then proceeded to influence an additional ten people each…

(Once again, my head is spinning!)

We can resurrect the lost art of listening, and change the face of global communication today. Begin by listening with all your senses to your partner’s and children’s words. Imagine the scene he is describing and picture yourself in the situation he is outlining. Take the energy to put yourself in his shoes, and feel the emotions that he is expressing.

Then, take a moment to pause and reflect.

Are the words that jumped into your mind the response he would appreciate hearing, or the habitual response that you would appreciate saying?

If a personal thought such as, “I must pick up the suit at the cleaners before 7:00.” keeps popping to forefront of your mind, take a pen and write it down. This technique is known as ‘brain-dumping’ and that will free your mind to concentrate on the subject at hand with total focus.

Rest assured, that after practicing the above techniques several times, they become second nature. Choose a time, perhaps the time your spouse returns home from work, to practice daily, and tape the above paragraphs to your bathroom mirror. Your rewards will be richly deserved and soon in arriving: The next time you have a subject of importance to talk about, you will be conversing with an empathetic, understanding, and listening ear.


Related Posts:


  1. Ellen,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you!
    Especially as a single work at home and outside job, it feel like I always have to multitask and there is still always too much to do. When I am with friends, I really try to not even answer my cell phone, except for when my daughter calls. When I’m with them I really want to be present. I already spend too much time with information overload… spending more time with my computer than my friends! When I’m with my daughter, I am looking right at her and asking her if there is anything she wants to talk about. I tell her I am always there for her when she needs or wants me. But she is 15, so that isn’t often enough!
    One thing that really annoys me is when people say, “Hi, How are you?” But they don’t wait for the answer! Or they roll their eyes if you say anything but “fine thanks, and you?”!
    Thanks for this reminder in your great article!

  2. Great article!

    I think this one idea – of active listening – is perhaps the greatest thing we can do for our relationships. Listening brings understanding and thus compassion, transforming our actions into loving ones. I especially agree with what we do, is what others will do to us (the example of laryngitis perfectly demonstarting this fact). If we actively model these traits to our children, our children will model them back. Thanks for the reminder to really listen, not simply hear.

  3. I need to get this in my head! This must be something that God wants me to work on. I realized this past weekend and here again now that I have to start becoming an active listener…. Listening with all 5 senses if I can. Fully focused and turned toward my husband or children. I think that my ‘job’ as a wife and stay at home mom that homeschools 3 of the oldest of my 5 children requires multitasking all of the time. But I have come to see once again that I have lost the art of listening and am sending the WRONG MESSAGE to the loved ones around me. I believe and want them to know that they are more important than stirring the batter or slapping the sandwiches together, etc! I can PAUSE turn to them and LISTEN with my whole person. Thank you for this wake-up call.

  4. Margaret Farrell says:

    I have daughter who has a neuro-muscular disorder, and had a grandfather who had a serious stroke, sooo I have a pretty good idea about differences in communication and how badly good communication is needed. Even among people who are “only” time “impaired”.

  5. I loved this article. I just wish there was an idea or suggestion of how to do this with a 4 year old tugging and an 18 month crying. I feel bad that sometimes I can’t give my children the full attention they need at that moment.

  6. Well, you hit the nail on its head. As a principal of a boys only day school, I have noticed that the more High Tec the family use is the less of a family is. If we were to record most of todays discussion, we’ll notice thats its not really a discussion. Its two people talking and no one listening. sadly this is because thats what we hear & see on the media. We in our school work very hard on the art of listening. We model this in classroom daily. Children raise their hand and re-ask a question that was just answered. The process is to ask the student if he was listening. We have the previous student to re-ask his question and provide the Teachers answer. It worked wonders.

  7. Kyla Hamilton says:

    Just yesterday I sat with my son to play some (not so fun) games to test our listening. I asked him to tell me a story. When he begun I started looking around, bending over and picking at the wall, talking to the dog and so on. I asked him if I was listening to him and he said…NO!. I told him that we need to listen not just with our ears but with our entire bodies. Does anyone have any FUN games to play with my 4 year old son so he understands the importance of listening?


  8. Linda Reinhold says:

    Hi Ellen, Thank you for your good work and inspiration. I am in a prayer group which belongs to a world-wide association of prayer groups known as “Invitation to Life.” Our group is involed in the”Listening Mission” and one of our group’s functions (and others in the US) is to provide a prayer hotline every Friday night. One person listens to the caller while a group prays for them nearby, in a safe and totally private atomosphere. I ran across a great article on listening that I sent to a number of friends and I’d like to send it to you. I scanned it from a magazine and If you would like me to send it, please tell me how. Bless you, Linda Reinhold

  9. thanks for the post! I totally agree with every single word you’ve said. I want to comment that listening is mote than just hearing. When family members know you are sincerely interested in what they have to say, they may be more willing to open up and tell you what they think and how they feel.