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Christopher Witt —  July 24, 2013


The Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written 1,500 years ago by Benedict of Nursia for monks living communally, begins with that simple word: Listen.

The entire phrase is “Listen and incline the ear of your heart…”

Listening is a good way to begin just about any venture, not just a book of precepts.

Listening is about paying attention…in a certain way, with a certain attitude, and a certain commitment. It’s about paying attention or, as Benedict writes, “inclining the ear of your heart.”

What makes it so difficult to listen with the ear of our heart?

The Enthronement of the Ego

Ego is the part of us that thinks we’re in charge of our identities, our lives, our fates. Left to its own devices, the ego thinks we’re in charge—or should be—of other people and of the universe itself. Ego is a little god, a tyrant, a spoiled child.

Ego is about being in control.

It requires constant vigilance and aggression, since so many things (our own inner conflicts), events, and people keep asserting themselves. And, because control is an illusion, the ego requires a great deal of denial.

When we listen with the ear of our ego, we hear only what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

We listen to confirm what we already know and believe and value, never allowing ourselves to learn something new, to be challenged, or to change.

The heart (sometimes called the self or the soul) is the place where the intellect and emotions, thoughts and desires, dreams and aspirations, meet. It’s the wider, deeper self that can’t be strictly confined, that doesn’t define its individuality as different from and in opposition to others.

When we listen with the heart, we let go of the pretense that we’re in charge of ourselves, must less of others. We let go of our agenda and expectations. And we open ourselves, well, to who knows what.

(The author Steve Pressfied has a related piece, The Ego and the Self, that is well worth reading. And, while you’re at it, you might want to check out his book, The War of Art.)

The Need for Speed

We’re all busy. We’re always behind. So the natural response is to speed up.

And all our efforts to do more with less only confirm the Red Queen’s maxim: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Many activities can be sped up, but listening isn’t one of them.

The only way to hurry listening is to hurry other people—to interrupt them, to convey our impatience, to ask them to cut to the chase—which isn’t listening at all.

To listen with the heart, we have to slow down.

The Primacy of Action

Because there’s so much to do and so little time, it’s no wonder that action gets such high marks. Just don’t sit there, we’re told, do something.

Listening is, of course, doing something.

Listening is an action, but it doesn’t look like it. It looks passive.

To listen with the ear of the heart, we have to keep the ego at bay. We have to tune out distractions. And we have to pay attention to all the ways people communicate (by words and omissions, silence, facial expressions, gestures, posture). That’s all hard work, but it’s the antithesis of mindless action.

To listen and incline the ear of the heart and who knows what you might learn, what other people might say, what might happen.

You can take the listening quiz and test your listening skills.


a person straining to listenPeople work with me, for the most part, because they want to become better communicators. And by that they mean, usually, that they want to become better speakers. I find that improving their listening skills often proves more beneficial.

Listening isn’t a passive skill. You don’t simply sit there and let the other person talk. You interact. You tune out distractions. You give people cues (verbal and nonverbal) that you’re listening. You pay attention to every way they communicate — to their words, gestures, facial expressions, eyes, pauses, everything. You ask questions. You rephrase what you hear.

Listening is also a gift. You are giving people something of value — something most people don’t give them.

Here are what I consider to be…

The Most Common Poor Listening Habits:

  1. Talking instead of listening.
  2. Presuming that you know what the other person is thinking.
  3. Preparing what you’re going to say instead of listening.
  4. Mentally arguing with the speaker.
  5. Thinking about something else while the speaker is talking.
  6. Getting impatient with the speaker.
  7. Letting the environment distract you.
  8. Dividing your attention — reading your email, filling out reports, staring at someone cute!
  9. Not asking questions.
  10. Being distracted by the speaker’s mannerisms, voice, or appearance.

And here are..

5 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills

  1. Give Your Full Attention.
    Even if you’re an efficient multitasker, you really can’t listen well while you’re engaged in another activity. You’ll miss something of what people want to communicate — a feeling, a nuance, a connection. Set aside what you’re working on, and tune out your mental distractions.
  2. Look and Sound Like You’re Paying Attention.
    Show people you’re paying attention. If they think you’re tuning them out — whether you are or not — they’ll assume you don’t care. And they’ll stop talking. Give people visual cues that you’re listening. Turn your whole body to face them, look them in the eye, and lean in. Give them auditory cues that you’re paying attention.
  3. Stop Mind Reading.
    Making assumptions about people’s motives and feelings is patronizing and often misleading. Approach each encounter as if it is entirely new. Even if people repeat themselves, look for something original in what they’re saying. Being a committed listener will challenge people to be more thoughtful conversationalists.
  4. Ask Probing Questions.
    Most people’s conversation is a small portion of what they’re thinking and feeling. If you never ask questions, they won’t tell you their true insights, needs, feelings, and motivations. Start by asking clarifying questions: “Do you mean…” or “Did I understand you to say…” Then follow up with exploratory questions: “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “What makes you feel that way?” or “Can you tell me more about why you want that?”
  5. Practice Silence.
    When you ask a question, give people time to formulate their response. Silence is a good thing. It allows for reflection. Be patient and you’ll be surprised by what people come out with.

Take The Listening Quiz.

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