Would you say that you’re a good listener? An empath perhaps? A few months ago, I think my answer would have been yes. I think! My career finder test in high school literally recommended I become a therapist. It checks out. But over the last few months I’ve felt a certain…nudge. Like the universe was trying to tell me “Psst. You’re not as good at this as you think you are.”
So, despite my questionable relationship with leadership books, I begrudgingly bought one on brave leadership that turned out to be full of wonderful lessons that have changed my perspective, but the biggest takeaway for me centers on this quote:
“If only we listened with the same passion that we feel about being heard.” — Harriet Lerner
I read this and thought, wow. That is convicting.
Can I honestly say that I listen to my husband tell me about his day at work with the same passion with which I tell him about mine? Do I call my bestie and listen to her catch me up on her life with the same passion that I have when I tell her about mine?
Do I listen to my clients or my friends and colleagues with the same passion that I tell them what I’m thinking or show them work I’ve done?
The answer was no.
I wondered, what would be different if I really made a dedicated effort at practicing listening well? At really showing up. At not being so selfish all the time when I interact with others. The difference could be huge.
I began this process by thinking: Who is the person in your life who you can talk to and say exactly what you need to say, knowing that they are receiving all of it? That feeling is just amazing. I always feel so liberated and lighter and loved.
And all that catharsis simply because another human listened without judgement. That kind of connection has made all the difference in my close relationships. What if I tried to bring that same feeling to all my interactions?
Brené Brown described this beautifully. “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
So the kind of listening I want to strive for isn’t just listening — it’s connection. To break this down further, connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel:
5. Fed (strengthened and sustained by your presence).
Real connection isn’t something that can be fake — it’s an energy, not just words. It isn’t about you and what you’re hearing or taking in. It’s about the way the other person feels.
I want people to feel this way every time I talk to them. So I wondered….how can I practically get better at doing these 5 things so it just comes naturally? I started practicing this at redpepper first, with clients, projects, and coworkers.
No shit — I’ve found that listening well heals all.
Here is what has worked for me:
1. Strive to really see the person you are speaking to and what is motivating them at that moment.
2. Try to make sure to hear what they are really saying or asking for. Not the fluff, but what they want us to honestly take away. Ask questions that cut through the posturing and get clarity around what they’re really needing.
3. Make sure to actually value their opinion and ensure that their perspective is valuable to you.
4. Create space so that the other person feels safe to be honest and upfront. This is critical. All of the benefits that come from listening well break down if people can’t be honest and vulnerable.
5. Make sure that the other person knows that you’ll take what they’ve said to heart and be open about this.
In practicing these five things, I’ve recognized a couple of watch-outs as well. These may feel obvious, but it’s important to remind ourselves of bad habits we might have slipped into without noticing.
Watch out #1: there is no room for bullshit or cynicism in listening well.
People can sense insincerity. The important thing here is to make sure to not shy away from points of disagreement but to hear the other side of the story and openly talk about what your honest feelings are. There shouldn’t be any need for BS.
Watch out #2: People and their thoughts and feelings aren’t games.
Have you ever been having a conversation and suddenly you have a sneaking suspicion that the other person is analyzing your every word and body language? Not in the interest of making sure they hear and deeply understand you, but as a tool for manipulation?
Gaming conversations is not the way to build trust. It cripples opportunities for people to be honest and vulnerable when they feel like they’re being observed or played rather than listened to.
I’ve worked to make these pointers second-nature when I’m connecting with other people, and the difference has been enormous. Conversations are more productive and deeper. My work is better. People are happier. I’m happier. Everyone is living a little more authentically just for having had space to talk and be listened to.
Listening is no longer a chore when you really take the time to understand what motivates people and what they need from you. I’ve found so much more joy in the smallest everyday tasks just from taking the time to step back, listen or seek to empathize or understand how I can support other people.
Listening matters. Brenda Ueland says it so much better than I could:
“I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is.
And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all — which is so important, too — to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”