The Lost Art of Listening

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Karl A. Menniger Have you ever felt really listened to? Really understood? How did the person you were talking to […]

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“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Karl A. Menniger

Have you ever felt really listened to? Really understood? How did the person you were talking to make you feel heard and seen? Most of us don’t spend much time trying to understand the art of listening. In our rushed and urgent society where we feel the need to stay busy and get things done, we have lost the ability to really listen – listen with the intent of understanding the other person’s world…

These days more and more people feel drawn to coaching. Have you ever considered why that is? In a coaching relationship the coach holds space for you to be seen and heard. The Co-Active Leadership model teaches us that there are three different levels that we could be listening at. When we are listening on Level 1, we are only focused on our own internal space. This is the level that most of us operate on in our day-to-day lives. We are simply listening for a gap in the other person’s monologue so we can add our own thoughts and opinions on the topic under discussion. We have started to believe that to draw people to us, we need to be great conversationalists. Some people take this to the next level and believe that this means they must be the smartest person in the room. But have you ever stopped to consider whether other people are really listening to you and noticing how smart you are? Or are they just waiting for you to finish so that they can say something? Or worse, leave the conversation for a space that feels less intimidating…?

When did conversations become so competitive? And what do we gain from these types of conversations? Perhaps our current way of being in conversation explains why so many people hate networking. It feels like too much work for very little gain, because everyone is just competing for airtime.

So, what if you were not invested in getting some airtime and could just listen with your whole heart, mind and body to another person? What if you could go into conversation with someone with the intention of actually seeing the world the way they do? Or learning something new that you didn’t know? What if you were truly curious about what’s going on in someone else’s mind? How do you think the conversation would go?

Most people are afraid of this kind of conversation. They are afraid of uncomfortable silences. There is this unscripted rule in society that we need to “fill the silence before it becomes awkward.” What if you looked at silence as simply space? Space to think. Space to breathe. Space to be. How would you show up if you knew silence was the space where new ideas are born, or new insights are uncovered? What if silence was a gift? And you could give someone else that gift?

As a Co-Active coach, I’m trained in listening at Levels 2 and 3 and staying away from Level 1. What does that mean? It means that in a coaching conversation, I’m not paying attention to my inner world. I’m not waiting for you to finish talking so that I can impress you with my brilliance. Instead, I’m holding space for you. I’m curious about you. I’m really listening to you – all of you. I’m not just listening to what you are saying; I’m also listening to what you are not saying. I’m listening for nuance and for yearning. I’m listening for deeper needs and wants. I’m listening for contradictions and I’m truly curious about your inner world.

It also means that I’m attuned to the external world and to what is happening in our space while we are in conversation with each other. I’m attuned to my intuition and I will tell you what I notice and what I sense. However, because I’m not on Level 1 of listening, I’m not attached to how you interpret my observations or offerings. I’m not invested in you finding value in what I’m saying. I’m invested in you finding value in what you are saying and the shifts you notice in yourself.

This is a different way of being with people. It opens space for inner awareness. It opens the possibility of dreaming and it creates safety to be who you are. There is no judgment. There are no expectations. There is only curiosity. As coaches we are taught how to hold space for others – space to think; space to explore; space to be in silence with their own thoughts and feelings.

I stumbled upon this interesting piece of reading today. It was about Erich Fromm’s six basic rules for the art of listening. These six rules need to be practiced if you are to truly listen to and understand another person. It’s basically how you would go about “seeking first to understand” as Covey urged us to do in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The first rule emphasises the complete concentration of the listener. This is what we would call Level 2 listening in Co-Active language. It’s giving your undivided and focused attention to the speaker and bringing only curiosity to how you are listening.

The second rule of listening talks about how the listener is to practice self-management. The listener “must be completely free from anxiety or greed”, says Fromm. What I take this to mean, is that you must be able to put your own worries and concerns aside; step outside of your own mind to truly inhabit the speaker’s world. Additionally, what I think Fromm means by “being free from greed”, is letting go of your desire to use up airtime. If you are doing more of the talking, you are not really listening. If you care more about when it is your turn to talk, you are in fact acting greedy and taking away the opportunity from another to be heard and seen.

Fromm also states that the listener “must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words”. Often people have difficulty expressing what they are feeling or experiencing. In coaching work, I have found metaphors to be quite helpful in describing a specific state of mind or state of being. So, what I’m taking from this, is that as the listener or coach in the relationship, it’s helpful to look for metaphors or visual descriptions that might help summarise or capture what the speaker is describing. It not only helps your understanding, but it gives the speaker something to remember, hold on to, and come back to over and over. Metaphors are powerful in helping us understand our subconscious minds.

Fromm believed that the listener must be “endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own”. This capacity lies at the heart of coaching and is often the reason why people are drawn to coaching as their calling. Empaths and people who have faced their own challenges, setbacks, frustrations etc. can often strongly relate to someone else’s struggle and they find themselves called to the service of others, because of their deep understanding of what might be unfolding in another person’s inner space.

It’s important to keep in mind that relating to someone’s experience does not mean you know how they feel. Nothing stops an authentic and vulnerable conversation quicker than the comment “I know how you feel”. No, you do not. You can relate. You can perhaps know how you would feel or react in a similar situation, but you have no idea how the other person feels, because you are not them. You don’t perceive the world the same way they do. This is the reason why two people could experience the same event and have two very different stories about what happened. If you want to hold space for another person, acknowledge how they feel or what they are going through, without implying that you know what it feels like to be them. Real listening includes respecting that the person in front of you has their own unique experience of the world that is very different from your lived experience of the world.

So, in those moments when you hear someone tell you a story that you can relate to, because you’ve had a similar experience, try resisting the urge to tell them your story or give them advice and rather ask them more about their experience. Try practicing curiosity instead of knowing and see what happens. Only offer your own experience if you know that it can serve them in some way. But, be honest with yourself about why you are sharing your experience. If you catch yourself sharing your story simply to tell your story, move back to curiosity. If, however, you notice that sharing your story, might empower the other person to look at their situation from a different perspective, then offer your story. The authenticity test though is, how does the person react to your story. Are they opening up more, becoming quiet and reflective, or do you feel them withdrawing from the conversation?

Fromm postulates that the condition for empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him or her — not in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out to another person, and of overcoming your fear of losing yourself in the process. It might feel as if you are going to lose yourself if you don’t tell your story, but you won’t. Instead, you might find yourself and learn something about your own inner space by creating space for another. You will experience what real love feels like. Real love is noticing the whole person. It’s holding space for another to bring their whole self without judgement or fear of rejection.

In the words of Fromm “Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed”. What I take this to mean is that when you are stuck on Level 1 of listening, you are only present to yourself and your own mental processes. You remain stuck in your worldview and you miss out on an opportunity for real connection. When you can separate your mind from the conversation and listen with open receptiveness; when you choose to hold space for another and engage in real curiosity about their worldview, you connect deeply. The connection we create through this type of listening, is a connection that builds deep trust and safety. You have made another person feel seen and heard. And there is no greater gift in our disconnected and fragmented world.


  1. Covey, S. R. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Fromm, E. (1998). The Art of Listening. United Kingdom.

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