How To Really Listen in this Loud, Mad World

...that I might seek to understand, before being understood...”
— Prayer of St. Francis
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
— Ernest Hemingway
Being heard
is so close to being loved
that for the average person,
they are almost indistinguishable.
— David Augsburger

Everyone knows how great it feels to be listened to. And everyone admires listening as a virtue. Yet our world gets louder and louder as everyone feels entitled to share their angry opinions. 

How did we end up here? And more importantly, how can you and I escape?

Most of the time, we want to listen. Conflict seems to hijack this agenda. Whether it’s between two friends in a coffee shop or two politicians confronting one another on Twitter, it’s about time to elevate the level of discourse in our world.

This starts by being the first ones to make listening a common practice in our lives, rather than just a mythical ideal.

Here are some ideas to get you started. They’re difficult, but they have worked well for me.


Most people don’t know how to ask good questions.

The old adage is true, “there are no stupid questions”–but there are far too many selfish ones. 

It’s our natural instinct to ask questions for our own benefit, because we’ve been raised in a post-Enlightenment age. We are all scientists and skeptics, or investigators on inquisitions.  We assume our questions are necessary so we can fulfill our fact-finding missions and come to the appropriate conclusions on things.

We’re only ever hearing what we asked to hear. 

We aren’t exploring anything new. Our bad questions reveal the extent to which we’re already given over to selfishness. Selfish questions make all our interactions about our own personal benefit.

What if–instead of asking the question you wanted answered–you asked the question they wanted to be asked?

This is a different thing altogether! A whole new kind of conversation awaits. And boy, will you get to listen! Good questions–selfless questions–are sure to engage the person you’re talking to. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has hidden wisdom in the deep waters of their soul. They are just waiting for someone to ask without an agenda.

You’ll likely see the conversation veer off on a tangent. You’ll probably not be able to get a word in edgewise.

That’s okay, because you’ll really have an opportunity to listen, instead of just padding your opinion with their fill-in-the-blank answers.

If wisdom is the tree, the seed is a great question. Figure out how to ask it, and you’ll start learning how to be a listener.


My monkey brain gets so easily distracted. Most of the time, when I’m at odds with someone else’s perception, I start the conversation willing to listen. I’m generous and kind and forgiving… right until they open their big fat mouths.

Then I want to correct, and react, and challenge. And I switch gears so quickly it’s almost impossible to stop myself.

Here’s the trick: cut yourself off at the pass, and decide at the very beginning you will actively prevent yourself from saying everything you normally feel entitled to say.

I know what my first reaction was: aren’t I supposed to be honest? Am I deceiving people by keeping some of what I think from them?

Isn’t everyone entitled to my opinion?

It feels that way, at first. But I ask those questions out of my own inflated sense of self-importance. As long as I’m not hiding or being purposefully vague, I’m safe.

If I have to share everything I’m thinking in order to be honest with others, I’ve reduced myself to my opinions.

This art of self-restraint is an integral component in our culture’s biggest missing virtue: discretion. We live inside out and call it “vulnerability”. Without discretion, every interaction devolves into a louder, more desperate attempt for each person to be heard, and understood, and known, even though everybody said everything already! 

Sure–be honest. Be open. But if you’re doing the majority of the talking, you just need to shut up from time to time. 


You want to know what’s attractive? Beautiful people and lovely scenery still count. But on a more primal level–especially when it comes to how humans interact with each other–opinions are the hottest thing out there. Nothing makes a group of people do a faster double-take than experiencing the power of somebody who has their mind made up.

Most of life is far more nuanced than we care to admit. But we reduce everything into Right/Wrong, Black/White, and True/False dichotomies because it feels good to come to conclusions about things

I’m convinced our chief addiction isn’t drugs or sex or carbohydrates. It’s judgement. 

It’s the high we feel when we move our brains out of uncertainty and come to a verdict about something.

We no longer have to deal with mystery or contradiction. We’re free to join a collective of those who share our beliefs. We’re insulated from doubt, and we have a plan for the problem. 

The problem is, we’re no longer listening.

The moment we pass judgement, we’re no longer able to hear. We’ve already reached our conclusion and we’re not open to receiving any new information.

Actively keeping ourselves from passing judgement is the only way to truly hear. By refusing pat answers and cheap arguments, we eventually arrive at our destination: we want to understand the values and viewpoints of others.

But the road to understanding is hard, and fraught with peril. It’s unsexy to have more questions than answers. You don’t get the catharsis of having your social group flock to your proclamation anymore, because you set your soapbox on fire!  

Are you willing to walk back your big ideas on religion, and childbirth, and Donald Trump, and what the city should do to fix that intersection you hate?

Or are you content with your opinions, and not really interested in hearing anymore?

The truth is out there, in the middle of the lake, and you have to tiptoe across the thin ice to get to it. If you put your foot down, you’ll just fall in wherever you stand. 

Are you willing to move back into the fragile middle ground–where things are far less certain–and hold your conclusions in a light and quiet way?

Good listeners are so rare, they’re almost an endangered species. You can get by, in this world, without becoming one. But your love for others will turn into cliche if you don’t listen. The most beautiful truths have to be shared in the sacred space we make for one another. 

Listeners aren’t ever “right”, because they’re not trying to be heard or agreed with. They’re just available. And they soothe souls trapped in the endless violence of noise.

There will always be far too many clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. Leave the cacophony of noise and join a quieter crowd.