By Dr. Jim David

I am writing this at the Chautauqua Institute which is a haven for adventurous life-long learners. The institute seamlessly blends time for education, recreation, spirituality and the arts. The soul of Chautauqua ( is sharing with others who may or may not share your perspective. Listening well is essential for learning, for growing and for connecting well with others.

When I think of listening well and connecting well I can’t help but think of Mary. She will be 94 next month. She works two or three days each week as executive secretary for her local Rotary Club. Mary is full of life and joy. She is effervescent as she listens with total absorption to what the other person is saying. She’s my poster child for listening well, connecting well.

Listening Well, Step One

As you age, are you over-preoccupied? Are you worrying, planning and then missing the moment? Or are you  training yourself to be totally in “The Now?”  (See The Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle).

So the first step in listening well is setting aside your own agenda, quieting your mind so you are able to fluidly take in the messages being sent to us. Ideally, you can discipline yourself to observe without judging, experience without thinking. How can you take in the message being sent if your mind is already filled with your thoughts?

This is particularly relevant and important with those of whom you are closest to. It’s so easy and comfortable to label someone very close as being closed or rigid or unrealistic. You don’t have to make the effort to connect with the evolving uniqueness of that person. Marcel Proust said it well, “The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new lands but in seeing with fresh eyes.”  New or fresh eyes require an open or quiet mind.

How do you develop a quiet mind? You would certainly have to exit the digital cybernetic culture where you cling to your smart phones with total devotion and determination. To acquire a quiet mind, like any type of skill, requires time, practice and dedication. Generally, you need to go off and be by yourself (See The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson). It helps to meditate. We all need to embrace the sweet sound of silence. The truth is within us (See If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon Kopp).

Step Two

Step two is paying attention to nonverbal messaging. It helps to strengthen your “attending skills.” How attentive are you to the person you are attempting to hear? Remember that the first rule in communication is “we cannot not communicate!” We cannot help ourselves in that we are always reading one another and then probably making judgments, whether these judgments consciously register with us or not.

Of course, your nonverbal stance or presence simply tells the other person what your attitude toward them is. My friend Mary does this so well.  Her eyes light up when she turns toward you, she is with you 100 percent. What a gift! What is she communicating? She says, “I like you. I value you. I accept you just as you are. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.” Love gets operationalized in being accepting. Acceptance is your gift to another.

When someone listens to you really well, you open up to them. You trust them. You feel safe with them. You feel connected. What a precious gift to give one another! It becomes a gift to your spouses, your children, grandchildren and friends. I saw a sign at Chautauqua, “Nothing is more important than this day.” You could alter it to say, “Nothing is more important than this moment.”

Step Three

Thomas Gordon, in Parent Effectiveness Training, articulates three levels of listening. The first level is passive listening where you tune into the person speaking, but don’t give much feedback. This generally sparks some level of anxiety in the speaker because we frail, fragile human beings tend to be a little shaky without some feedback.

The second level is termed “door openers.” You can say brief things like, “Oh,” “interesting,” “really,” “tell me more.” These door openers encourage the speaker to further open up to you. They also restrain you from taking over and sending your messages, which may tend toward giving advice, teaching, moralizing, etc. The sender then shuts down because he or she perceives that your agenda has priority. Connecting ends.

The third level is active listening. You mirror or repeat what the sender has sent so they feel totally understood, accepted and supported. Mastering this skill takes tenacity, time and practice. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It requires “listening with the third ear.” The “third ear” is to tune into the underlying feeling and to feed it back first. You say, “you feel” followed by one word. You feel worried. You feel excited. Or you are worried. You are excited. When you tune into the sender’s feeling, you tune into them, into their personhood. You then experience what is sometimes called “limbic resonance.” This is what happens when you visually connect with an infant or anyone you love. The limbic part of your brain lights up, and you resonate with another person. Some term it “empathic resonance” (See A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini and Lannon).  In the deepest part of our souls, we need limbic resonance.

Of course, you also need to feed back the factual content, but the most efficacious sequencing is to mirror back the feelings first. An example is, “You’d feel embarrassed if we arrived late for the dinner party.” I call it “balancing feelings and facts.” The bottom line is that when you want to have a positive relationship with someone, feelings are more important than facts.  You can argue facts ad infinitum, but feelings just are. They are unarguable.

You have probably heard the truism that having two ears but one mouth, we are wise to listen twice as much as we talk. You’ve also probably heard several variations of “hearing but not listening or understanding.” Listening well brings the joy of connecting well. My 94-year-old friend Mary reminds me, “Don’t postpone joy!”

Dr. Jim David is a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Silver Spring.  Visit his website at or email at [email protected]


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