There’s a certain person you know who’s a good listener. You can always turn to them when you’re wrestling with a conundrum; they’re patient, thoughtful, and slow to judge or interrupt your train of thought.
Good listeners are living treasures, because we all need witnesses: witnesses to hold space for our grief and trauma; witnesses to our commitments to our selves; witnesses to our biggest, wildest, starriest dreams, our most oppressive fears, and our tenderest, most vulnerable parts.
When a good listener witnesses us, something alchemical happens and we are able to witness ourselves differently.
I experienced this first hand earlier this week: I was talking to my friend Sarah about some questions I’ve been grappling with, and even though I’d used all my usual tricks to think them through – writing, talking aloud to myself, good old-fashioned sitting and thinking – the moment I spoke them aloud to her, my thoughts and feelings became much clearer. It wasn’t a panacea, but I knew what my next step was, and that was enough.
I see this all the time in my coaching work, too: a great deal of that work lies in inviting my clients to speak aloud what they actually want to do, and then helping them figure out how to do that. Most coaches can tell you that the speaking aloud is a good deal of where the magic happens. Once it’s been said, and my client and I both hear the ring of truth in the words, the rest is mere logistics.
So here’s the first part of this week’s curiosity experiment:
- What do you need to speak out loud, and have witnessed?
- Who do you trust to witness it?
There’s a flip side to this one, though, that comprises the second part:
- How might you become a more skillful witness?
We tend to think of the qualities a good listener possesses as inherent, but they are skills anyone can develop. I know, because I used to be a terrible listener. I’ve always been talkative, which was part of the problem – I couldn’t wait to jump in and share my experiences, opinions, or (worst of all) advice. But even a chatty, opinionated older sibling like me can learn better listening skills.
The gifts of becoming a better listener go deeper than simple reciprocity – though it does feel good to give as good as you get. It’s profoundly nourishing to connect deeply with another person, give them your complete focus, and listen without judgment. (If you have a mindfulness practice, you can think of it as another form of metta meditation, where you direct compassion towards yourself and others.) And in an era when so many of our interactions with others are performative, mediated, and shallow, allowing yourself to sink deeply into one-on-one connection is life-giving.
Heather Plett’s article on holding space is a great place to start developing your deep listening skills, or if you’re curious about how coaches learn to be better listeners, here’s a good two-page PDF on the different listening levels you can work with. Heather Plett’s article on holding space is a great place to start developing your deep listening skills, or if you’re curious about how coaches learn to be better listeners, here’s a good two-page PDF on the different listening levels you can work with.