Listen? Stop Just Hearing!

Robert V. Taylor & Paul Donoghue

Attentive listening is life transforming.  Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel, authors of Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication join me in a blog converstion about the art and practices of listening.  Their wisdom invites us to join the thousands who have worked with them in allowing listening to transform our lives, relationships, workplaces and communities – beginning with you.

RVT:  In a culture filled with noise and instant responses is there a place for listening to become a positive life-affirming skill for people?  Perhaps even celebrated?

PD & MS:  Today we need time away from all the noise and distraction to listen to ourselves—our feelings, needs, thoughts.  We need to listen quietly to those we love no matter how occupied we think we are.  A very busy priest who headed a large religious order was asked if he meditated.   He answered, “Yes, I meditate a half hour each day.”  When he was asked, “But what do you do when a crisis occurs and you are in constant demand?”  He responded, “Then I meditate an hour a day.”

RVT:  Workplace environments are often fast paced.  Listening is frequently perceived as a poor use of time in many workplaces.  Have you discovered ways for people to turn listening into a workplace asset?


Mary Siegel

PD & MS:  So much time is wasted in workplaces, not by people listening but by people not listening.  Tasks have to be redone because a worker failed to listen carefully to directions.  A simple example:  countless meals are returned to already busy restaurant kitchens by waiters who didn’t confirm clearly the order that was given.  Waiters can learn to repeat back an order to confirm that they have heard accurately what the patron intended.  Employees in all settings can learn the simple skill of clarifying directions or information given rather than presuming, often inaccurately, that they have heard correctly. 

RVT:  We’re each leaders in some sphere of our lives.  Are there listening tools that enhance our leadership capacity?

PD & MS:  The most effective leaders know well those whom they are leading.  A good manager, for example, knows the hopes, dreams and needs of the people who report to her.  To attain this knowledge she has to listen.  The same holds true for the parent, the priest, and the teacher. 

RVT:  Is it possible for listening skills to turn around a personal or workplace relationship?

PD & MS:  Absolutely.  We consulted with an oil company that was riddled with dissension between the oilmen and the financial services personnel.  Each side, formed by entirely different cultures, was judging the other harshly.  These judgments triggered hurt and anger and resulted in very unproductive lack of cooperation.  When we were able to facilitate each group to listen to the other they were amazed that they shared so many values and agreed upon so many issues.  They learned to respect one another and to value their different contributions to the company’s success.  Difference can be divisive, but, through understanding, can be richly complementary. 

RVT:  What do you say to the person who listens well and persists in hoping that another will develop the same skills in order to strengthen the relationship?  Is this a use of negative energy or is it beating your head against the wall?


PD & MS: It depends.  Sometimes it is fruitful in a relationship to lead by example.  Generally, we want to listen as skillfully as possible to our partners trusting that our consistent empathic attention will invite him or her to listen in return.  Sometimes, however, the more attentive partner will need to speak assertively and with self-respect regarding his or her need to be heard.  Such assertion demands skill and is the subject of our new book to be published in September, We Really Need to Talk.  But sometimes a person has to “know when to fold” and when to stop pursuing a loving response that is simply not forthcoming. 

RVT:  The art of listening seems to be as much about a way of life, a way of engaging with ourselves and others as much as it is about tools and techniques for listening.  Are there steps to cultivate this art in our lives?

Paul Donoghue

PD & MS:   Well put, Robert.  Listening is an art, a skill and a way of living.  In a Carson McCuller’s story a fellow sitting alone in a café talks to a young paper boy about his life.  He tells the boy that his wife has left him since he had not been ready to love her.  The man says that he first needed to listen to the uniqueness of a rock and then a tree and then an animal before he was ready to listen deeply to a person.  We need to orient ourselves to truly listen with appreciation to the world around us.  That is a way of life not just a communication skill.  

RVT:  I’ve come to believe that listening is a spiritual practice.  Are their insights that you have about this?

PD & MS:  Robert, you value listening as we do, not only as an essential interpersonal communication skill, but as a way of being in the world.  Listening is open, receptive attention to what is most real and what is most beautiful about someone or something.  We listen to the beauty of a sunset and to the beauty of our grandchild.  We listen to the truth in a work of art and the truth in our spouse.  Such listening challenges us to be alert.  The Prophet Elijah climbed Mount Horeb to listen for Yahweh.  There was a mighty wind that shattered rocks, but Yahweh was not in the wind.  There was an earthquake and a fire, but Yahweh was in them.  Then came a gently breeze and in that quiet, Yahweh came to Elijah.  We have to turn off the noise within us and outside us to hear what life, what God, is saying to us.

Share your stories of transformative listening here

Order Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication by Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel here

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  1. Listening to others in a respectiful and attentive manner, is sometimes hard, but if we master this, we never cease to learn something, or cease to give something to others-our undivided attention, which is of course a gift we can all cultivate. One of my most beloved pieces of philosophy is the ‘DESIDERATA’ which I stand before and read to myself in its entirety once a week. The unknown author left us a one page amazing legacy and one of it’s most popignant sentences is this one: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly:and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; for they too have their story”. We are all human, sometimes we can ramble on, sometimes others do, sometimes we are running late, sometimes we can not bear to hear the same story again, etc. However, I have found even in those times, making myself stop and listen to someone who has something to say to us, at the very least, our reward is that we offered another person some chosen attention, who knows but that may be the only time that day that this will happen for them? Who knows what we might learn? When one is severly hearing impaired, these thoughts, lessons and choices becomes even more essential, because we know what it is like to have others turn away or rush on by, knowing the hearing impaired for instance, may need things repeated and that takes time! Clearly we need to have some boundaries, but listening to our fellowmen can often brings gifts of new knowledge and affirmation of how much humans need to communicate verbally, all the more because we are surrounded by the high tech age-I miss straight, simple verbal communication so much. It has become like a rare jewel.

  2. Great subject, Robert. Listening is one of the most amazing ways to love and care for one another. With a smile, I gently challenge your opening sentence, that the capacity to listen is in “short supply.” I understand your point and the contrast you’re establishing. Thankfully, deep listening in many of our lives, is abundant.

  3. Especially liked your latest post on “Listening”. Working in a busy hospital ER where doctors and nurses for various reasons don’t have time to really listen and engage with patients is sad. However, engaging with these same patients in conversation leaves me with one important value: they appreciate someone taking the time and listening to what they have to say including their doubts and fears. This is what makes my job rewarding! Again, thanks for your posting on listening.

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