"Deep Listening" Changed My Life and My Love

This is the listening practice that you'll fall in love with.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hello?
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone at home?
—Pink Floyd

My partner and I spent last weekend in Vegas which, for us, means very little gambling and a whole lot of eating. It was at a sushi joint where I spotted a couple who appeared to be on a date. The young man was adorably nervous and talking fast to stave off awkward silence. He smiled a lot and did his best to look the young woman in the eye. But like a slinky surrendering to the gravity of a staircase, her eyes kept bobbing down to her cell phone. Either he was a painful storyteller or she was not a very good listener. Either way, I hope they didn't rush off to Elvis's Chapel of Expeditious Love. Not until they learn about deep listening.

There's Story in the Silence

Deep listening can indeed be learned and practiced. While I'd always thought of myself as a good listener, I was formally introduced to deep listening a decade ago when I took a job as a counselor on a crisis hotline. Not being able to visually see our clients in crisis (we received calls nationally and internationally), we counselors needed to develop the deep listening skills that allowed us to hear every detail the client was saying—and, equally important, what they were not saying—what they were leaving out and what could be inferred from the pauses, gaps, and sighs.

As new counselors became seasoned listeners, and despite being in a busy call center, it was second nature to become quickly and deeply absorbed in client conversations without distractions severing the connection. We listened for their words, we listened for their hesitations and pauses, their upturns and downturns of intonation, their pacing, their careful choice of words and the telling little word slips, their moments of comfort and their years of pain. You could hear what the callers wanted and, more often than not, they simply wanted to be heard.

We All Want to Be Deeply Heard

Diana Raab, Ph.D. writes, "It’s been said that one of the most common reasons why people see therapists is to have their stories heard." Not just heard, but deeply heard. Understood. Cared about. And deep listening is more than active listening. Deep listeners are focused on understanding and empathizing with what their audience is communicating. They know when to ask deep questions that further the conversation, and when to sit back and listen without their own ego trying to insert itself. Raab continues, "One study conducted by Faye Doell (2003) showed that there are two different types of listening: 'listening to understand' and 'listening to respond.' Those who 'listen to understand' have greater satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships than others. While people may think they might be listening to understand, what they’re really doing is waiting to respond." 

Listening to respond is understandable, but if we pay attention to the why of our personal listening style, it becomes clear that many of us are listening because we want to appear to be listening. Or, we are listening because we feel pressured or anxious to come up with a response. Or, we are waiting for the prompts in other people's stories that will allow us to jump in and talk about ourselves rather than sit back and listen fully and deeply to them.

In this era of electronic communication, we are disconnected from long-form conversation and storytelling. This is a misalignment with the ancient human act of communicating deep meaning and passing on important information via storytelling. We are now downloaders of information. We communicate in snippets. So, when we see the opportunity to talk about ourselves, the ancient storyteller within us pounces at the chance. We are hungry for it. But is anybody out there? Is anybody listening?

What Is Your Listening Level?

In her wonderful article on deep listening, Heather Plett describes Schamer and Kaufer's four levels of listening: 1. downloading, 2. factual listening, 3. empathic listening, and 4. generative listening. She writes, "Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability, and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything."

The young woman at the sushi restaurant appeared to be downloading texts but not downloading the young man's story about his job, much less empathically or generatively listening. Like I said, he might have been a dreadfully dull storyteller. But might she have also felt some risk in surrendering to the vulnerabilities of deep listening? The risk of becoming invested? The risk of falling in love?

Arjuna Ardagh writes, "Being fully present means to feel what it is like to be inside the other person’s reality, including the fact that they are stressed and overtired and maybe need help and do not know how to ask for it. It means to be able to slip inside the other person’s shoes and to feel what it’s like to be in there. That is how you fall in love with people." 

I feel so grateful to be in a loving relationship in which my partner and I deeply listen to one another. Not just the words, but the silences, too. Although I suppose the argument could be made that I was not deeply listening to him last weekend at the sushi restaurant because I was deeply eavesdropping on the young couple. But, in my defense, it turned out to be research for this article. In fact, now that I think of it, perhaps my sushi is a tax write off.