These sayings are familiar to most of us because our self-expression is at the heart of how we move through the world. Speaking up, getting our point across, making ourselves heard: These are all important parts of interacting with other people. Our verbal self-expression builds our self-confidence and contributes enormously to our well-being, because doing so helps us to feel fulfilled and moves us forward in our lives. We may get what we ask for professionally or personally, or we may gain the respect of someone whose opinion we value.
But one of the most important effects of speaking up is simply that we feel heard. When we articulate our thoughts and feelings and are listened to by others, this makes us feel acknowledged. And being acknowledged makes us feel good about ourselves. Listening, of course, is the key to this feeling of acknowledgement.
In our drive to be heard, we often forget about the other side of the equation, the equally important reciprocal action of listening. With such an emphasis on making ourselves heard, it can be hard to quiet down enough to take in what the world is offering us.
We need to receive as much as we offer. When we spend the majority of our time speaking and asserting our point of view, we lose out on learning about the world, about people, and we become smaller and more limited in our awareness. Sometimes we need to stop speaking and listen.
I’m going to talk about practicing two kinds of listening: with people and with sound. The two practices are completely different, but their similarity resides in receptivity. We need to recognize that being receptive is highly beneficial to us, although we don’t usually value it as much as we do being assertive. Why is receptivity undervalued and why is it so difficult for many of us to do?
Receptivity can feel passive or may be associated with passivity. It does not outwardly appear to be an action. But being receptive is an action. It just happens to be a far more subtle action than being assertive, since it is quieter, its results take time, and there may not be a clearly quantifiable effect.
But when we listen, we hear more. We pick up on the quiet, the understated, the deeper rhythms of things instead of the surface chatter. And this is valuable because we want to exist as well rounded people with breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding. We want our lives to be vast and limitless, so we need to be life-long learners. And to learn, we constantly need to take in new information.
When we stop speaking, we hear more, we see more, we feel more. Our other senses kick in and we become better observers and better-informed observers. So when we do choose to take action, we are acting from wisdom born of diverse and nuanced experience. Our self-expression becomes richer and deeper, and so does our world.
1. Listening to people
In your interactions today, instead of asserting your opinion first, ask for the other person’s. Listen to what they are saying without excessively measuring it up against your own ideas and without forming your response while they are speaking. Just listen. Soften. Take them in. Look at them. Connect. Honor their opinion and perspective. You might be surprised at how satisfying it is. Remember: Just as your mind is filled with ideas, dreams, and opinions, so is the mind of the other person. When we learn about others, we also learn about ourselves.
2. Listening to sounds
Try to create a half day of silence. Go for a walk. Whether you are in the city or in the country, the listening experience is equally rich. Listen to birds or to traffic, to the sounds trees make in the wind or the sounds of crowds and construction. Listen to conversation, to music, to the hum of systems within buildings and the systems of nature. The number of sounds we hear each day is amazing. We tune some in and others out according to our preferences and sensitivities. A half day of silence is an opportunity to hear more and to remind yourself of the vastness of the world.
Can we think about receptivity as an action? Can we think about listening as an action? Can we recognize the importance of listening as a practice that expands our conceptions of things and people, deepens our insights into the world around us, and makes us more thoughtful communicators? Let us know. We are listening.
Photo courtesy of Roxxe Photography NYC