Creativity Magazine

Learning How To Listen

Posted on the 21 January 2013 by Abstractartbylt @artbylt

I know you need to make eye contact and to signal the speaker that you are listening by making a comment or asking a question periodically.

I know you’re not supposed to be thinking about your own story while they’re still talking.

But some people are easier to listen to than others.  Not because they are necessarily more interesting, but because they are expansive.  They give you the context for their remarks, telling you the whole story from beginning to end, and demonstrating how they want you to feel about what they are saying.

The hardest ones to listen to are people who give you no cues or context, and leave big gaps of silence.  When are you supposed to jump in?  How are you supposed to interpret?  Do they want you to prod them for more information, or will they think you are prying?

You also need to be careful not to let your mind wander.  This is a hard one when you’re listening to someone who tells you the same things over and over.  I have a brother like that.  He doesn’t actually have a conversation, but a soliloquy. 

He tries.  He will ask a question at the start of the conversation, like, “What have you been up to lately?”  But he’s already got his mind on his own interests, and often without even hearing my answer to his question, will launch his agenda. 

This brother has lots of ideas, most of them for other people to carry out, and he always has advice for me about some new book I should read, a new project I should start, or how I should help him accomplish his projects. 

He wants me to write a book with him, for example.  Years ago I tried that.  I also tried going into business with him. 

So I am well armed to gently refuse his requests. 

My brother is a good, generous man.  I love him.  But he is hard to listen to. 

He knows that, though, so he will often thank me at the end of a long phone call. 

Good listening skills are specific to the person you are listening to, and the context for the conversation.  I don’t have to think much about my responses to my brother, just acknowledge once in a while that I’m still there on my end of the phone.


I find that when I’m relaxed, I’m a better listener.  That means I do better one-on-one, because if there is more than one person present, I worry about talking to one of them more than the other. 

When four people are having a conversation, it often splits into two, and that is a natural evolution in social interactions.  The problem is a three-person conversation.  It’s difficult to have them all equally participate or to be equally interested in the topic of discussion. 


People who give no emotional cues are hard to listen to.  When Betsy says, my mother left me home alone when I was 10 years old, but gives no cue as to how she felt about that, I don’t know how to react.

“Wow, good for you, responsible at 10,” or “How terrible.  Were you lonely and scared?”

Other people I find it hard to listen to are those with perfect lives. They have only good things to report, are always cheerful and upbeat, and never complain about anything. 

What is there to talk about with them?


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