A couple talking in chairs at sunset

Learning to Actually Listen

I’ve been listening the wrong way my entire life — with just my ears. Maybe you’ve been doing it wrong too.

True listening is a totalizing, full-body experience. It transcends language. It’s about noticing all the different ways people communicate, from the micro-expressions on their face to the way they rotate their bodies in conversation, or the way they stutter or speed up while talking.

The novice listener sees a conversation as a transcript. The expert listener knows that what’s being said is only a fraction of what’s being communicated. A huge percentage of communication happens in the cadence of speech, the intonations of the voice, and the movements of the body. Most of what people say transcends the content of the conversation.

Whenever two people are talking, they can only consciously pick up on a fraction of what’s happening. One person doesn’t realize how many signals they’re unconsciously sending while the other can’t process how much information is being communicated (and vice versa).

Here’s a game for you to play: Next time you have a conversation, ignore the words. Pretend the content of the conversation is irrelevant. Give all your attention to the vibe instead. Focus exclusively on emotion, posture, speech patterns, and the ever-fluctuating dance of body language. If you really want to get wild, try having a conversation in pure gibberish to appreciate how much you can still say.

Go beyond the ear and expand your definition of listening.

Don’t merely equate it with words. As you do, you’ll awaken to new aspects of communication and the human experience that’ve been hiding in plain sight.

Cover photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash