Learning to Listen

Many writers have noted the importance of listening. Ernest Hemingway said, “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Along the same line, Bill Nye said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

Mostly we fail to listen deeply to others because we are eager to make our own points. Fran Lebowitz joked that “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” I think she meant waiting to jump in with a retort. My friend Paula has given me a useful acronym of the word WAIT: Why Am I Talking? It makes sense to stop talking and just listen — but I’m not good at WAITing.

When I worked as a social worker,  I tried to improve my listening skills but it was difficult. Although  I admired the work of Carl Rogers and once attended a talk he gave, my efforts to listen with unconditional positive regard were never really successful. I later found that many others were, like me, given to zoning off or contradicting when others were speaking:


As with so many things, I blame my lack of listening skills on my upbringing. When I was growing up, conversations around the dinner table featured intense arguments with frequent references to “What about the other guy?” and “What if everyone did that?” Those were good questions, but if you wanted to participate you had to be ready to jump in the moment anyone finished a sentence or, better, before.

Sometimes the “whatabouts” led the “discussion” very far away from the starting point. On the one hand, this, would be a response. On the other hand, that. Maybe yet another hand. So many hands!!!

My friend Mark Kiemele got me thinking about these conversations when he sent me a link to the following article on “whataboutism” or “whataboutery” that seemed to apply to our family arguments.


Mark said he thought he’d invented a version of this practice back in the 70’s when he employed a version of it to divert kids who were crying by saying something like “Hey, look at the rhinoceros!” 

I thought I could get credit for having identified this behaviour as “yesbutism,” but it turns out the behaviour is widespread and longstanding.

The problem is a lack of listening. We need to stop talking and just listen. Many years ago, I started to write a book about leadership which I planned to call Focus and Connection. That is what active listening is all about. Focus. Connection. Waiting. Listening.

Ursula LeGuin had important things to say about the importance of listening. In her final blogpost of 2017, she offered a poem she wrote in 1991 in which she drew attention to the “say so” of powerful people and committed herself to listen

to women and our children
and powerless men,
my people. And I will honor only
my people, the powerless.

You can  read the full poem below and also listen to the speech she gave at the National Book Awards when, at the age of 84 she received a lifetime achievement award:

It’s good to listen, and it’s especially good to listen to Ursula LeGuin. And to follow her lead by replacing “say so” with listening.

After I master the practice of stillness, I intend to pursue active listening. I must learn to wait.

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