The Art of Listening

Jan 1 09:19 2010 Carolyn Ellis Print This Article

Listening is such an under-rated and highly valuable skill. Our inability to listen clearly and without our own agendas can impede our relationships. Invitation to take a new look at the art of listening and tips to become a master at it!

Listening is such an under-rated and highly valuable skill. I got a great example the other night during dinner courtesy of my children. My 7 year old son was more interested in bothering his 13 year old sister than he was in eating. This typical domestic scene escalated very quickly and concluded with my son lunging,Guest Posting open-mouthed and angry, onto his sister's arm. She quickly yelped in pain and grabbed her wounded limb. I confronted him and told him firmly that biting is not acceptable. He insisted that he didn't and started to get very upset. "But I saw what you did!" I exclaimed in exasperation. My son protested and stormed off to his room. I let him go to cool off and inspected my daughter's arm. Sure enough, it was red and there were two clear moon- shaped marks in her flesh.

After the meal, I headed upstairs to debrief with my son and asked him to explain what happened. He looked at me with a very sure eye, and then proceeded to question me calmly in a way that reminded me of Atticus Finch. "Did you look at her arm? What did you see?" he asked. "I saw that her arm was red and there were two distinct marks on her skin, one on the top and one on the bottom," I answered easily, yet somehow feeling my confident assessment of his guilt starting to ebb. "Mom, I don't have just one tooth on top and one tooth on bottom. This is what my toothmarks look like," he replied as he gently chomped on his forearm. I looked at the pattern and was stunned. Slowly the truth dawned on me -- my daughter had pinched herself with her nails and framed her brother! An example of sibling rivalry to be sure, but also an example of how our inability to listen clearly and without our own agendas can impede our relationships.

Levels of Listening

There are different levels of listening required for different situations. At one end of the spectrum is what I'll call "factual listening" which is needed to successfully share and absorb basic factual information. This is the kind of listening you use when you ask questions like "did you brush your teeth?" or "what time does soccer practice finish?" We're just looking for the objective facts so we can then make our decisions and plans. That's the level of listening I initially gave to my son.

In the middle of the spectrum is a deeper and more active form of listening that is useful when problems need to be solved. A friend or child in need comes to you to talk and asks for your advice. You listen actively not only to the facts but also to the emotions being shared. You're in problem- solving mode, so you use filters of comparing and assessing their situation with your own. You offer wisdom based on your personal experience. Savvy listeners know this is a great time to pull out those "active listening skills" and repeat back or summarize what you've heard so that the person will feel understood and acknowledged for what they've said.

Most people are comfortable operating in this mode of listening, where you get to "fix" other people's issues. We'll often set ourselves up as the "helper" or the "wise resource person" and our agenda becomes to "fix it". The filters being used here can be quite subtle, such as "If I show them how good a listener I am, they'll really respect me" or "There's no problem I can't solve".

At the other end of the spectrum is a less well- developed, but vital form of listening that I'll call "holding listening". You hold and support the speaker by listening intently with your heart as well as your ears. Your job is not to fix or to advise. Your job is to simply support that person in expressing what's been bottled up inside themselves. The exchange is not at all about you, your past experience or your views as to how the future should look. Your job is to simply be a supportive ear and opportunity for the person to express themselves.

So I invite you all to take a new look at the art of listening and see what shifts you may need to make to become a master at it! Healthy and strong relationships with the people in our lives are counting on it!

1. What filter or lens are you using when you listen? I had a lot of filters operating as I listened to my son's initial defence, such as "he's typically the one who pushes limits and gets unnecessarily physical" and even "boys get into trouble more than girls". I had already assumed, assessed and concluded the entire altercation before the boy could even utter one word of explanation! Take a look at what operating assumptions you typically hold of people you have in your life - your spouse, your children, your boss, your family. Write them down so you can see them with some objectivity. Being able to identify these filters honestly is the first step in being able to listen more fully.

2. Decide what level of listening is required in this circumstance. Make a decision as to what level of listening is best suited to the situation. Are there strong emotions involved? If yes, then a deeper level of listening that engages your heart as well as your auditory system is more appropriate than a cursory fact-based listening level.

3. Clarify the expectations. How many of us have had the experience where all we wanted to do was vent a bit, but instead got even more irate that someone was more interested in "fixing" us than really listening to how we were feeling? That kind of listening usually ruptures relationships, rather than builds them. At the start of the communication, you can clarify any expectations by simply asking "How can I best support you? Do you want my advice or do you want me to simply listen to you while you work this through?"

4. Listen to some feedback. This may sound like an intimidating step, but it's invaluable to get some feedback for yourself. Are you a listener who always wants to fix up problems? Are you a listener that loves to hear yourself talk? Are you a compassionate listener that can go with the needs of the person you're speaking with? Identify 2-3 people you trust and let them know you're interested in learning more about how effectively you listen and that you'd appreciate their honest input. Ask them to give you 1-2 things they appreciate about how you listen and 1-2 things they would like you to do more of in the future to make you an even better listener.

5. Are you listening to you? If you aren't able to listen effectively to others, chances are great that you aren't doing a great job of listening to yourself either. Notice how well you listen to your physical body, your heart, your passion, your intellect. Do you give yourself sleep when your body is tired? Do you ignore that inspiration to take some time out to sketch those daffodils because you've got a busy day already planned? As you learn to listen to yourself and follow- through appropriately, you'll find your listening to others in your life will take a dramatic turn for the better!

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Carolyn Ellis
Carolyn Ellis

Success Strategist, coach and best-selling author, Carolyn B. Ellis, is the founder of, created for divorced people who want to stop struggling and start thriving. To get free tips on every aspect of living through a divorce, from legal issues to single parenting to getting back into the dating world, visit

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