Listening as an Act of Love

5 min read

As a counselor educator and supervisor, I have often trained new lay and professional counselors in the art of listening. I consider this the most important intervention in therapy when helping individuals and couples heal fractured relationships.

Almost anyone can learn to listen to others in a more constructive and loving way.

When I ask about their listening abilities, many laypeople believe they are good listeners. They may assume this because friends or family members seek them out to talk about their problems. Indeed, some individuals are more naturally gifted at listening well than others.

Others I’ve asked, especially clients in therapy, honestly admit that they are poor listeners. They attribute some of their problems in life to this deficit.

Either way, I believe good listeners are pretty rare.

Listening as a gift of attention

Listening can be tough work. Most of us, without intentionality and even a bit of professional training, don’t do it very well. It is perhaps the main reason counselors must study for a few years and complete long internships before they are unleashed into the public.

Anyone can learn to speak well by speaking a lot. But we often take listening for granted and assume that we’ve got it covered without working on it. This complacency about listening causes an incredible amount of pain in relationships.

M. Scott Peck, in his well-known book, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, offered a compelling analysis of the relationship between listening and loving.

Peck starts with the concept that love, to truly be love, requires either work, courage, or both. When we extend ourselves to others, he wrote, we must overcome inertia to move into the work of love. Or, we must press through our fear and vulnerability to find the courage that love demands.

Peck further explained that the primary work of loving others is giving them the gift of our full attention. And in reality, listening is the primary form of giving our attention. How we all need to be listened to.

This formula summarizes the relationship between these constructs as Peck defined them:

Love=Work and or Courage=Extending Ourselves to Others=Giving Attention=Listening

I’ve often said that if people could learn to truly listen to one another, I’d be out of business as a therapist, and that would be just fine with me. Everyone would feel so loved that I’d shut down my therapy practice and open a flower shop or something fun like that.

We instinctively know when someone has really heard us, and there are few things in life that are more healing and validating. David Augsburger has said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

I’ve witnessed this often in marital therapy. Slowing down the communication process so that each speaker knows he or she has been fully heard transforms the atmosphere of the relationship. It invites intimacy and emotional safety. It demonstrates love in the most powerful way I know.

I’m reminded of the quip about having two ears and only one mouth, indicating that maybe we should listen at least twice as much as we speak.

To become a better listener

If you desire to become a better listener, a good place to start is to notice what happens mentally when you are presumably listening to someone.

You might be keeping eye contact and nodding your head to indicate attention, while you’re actually thinking about what you are going to say as soon as there is a pause.

Or, you might be thinking of the pot roast you plan to make for dinner. Or you might be thinking about how the speaker’s problem relates to something in your own life. Or you are lost in thoughts and judgments about what you heard five minutes ago.

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If you were required to accurately paraphrase what the person had said, you might be at a loss.

If you catch yourself doing this—pretending to listen when you are not really listening—there are ways to improve your listening skills.

First, discipline yourself to place your own thoughts aside into a mental container (or discreetly jot them down) so you can receive the message the speaker is sending. You can return to your own thoughts later.

Listen with the goal of being able to reflect both the content and emotions the person has conveyed. This way you won’t have to guess how to respond when it is your turn. Simply reflect what you heard, in your own words.

Carl Rogers called this type of reflective listening “accurate empathy.” It is at the heart of most healing and change. But it does take practice.

Listening well calls for delayed gratification, an essential characteristic of maturity. Patience, grasshopper, you’ll get your turn.

In fact, if your friend, colleague, spouse, or child really feels heard by you, they are going to be much more likely to want to hear what you have to say when it’s your time to talk.

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