The Muse of Literal Listening

There is an art to everything, even listening.

Throughout my life, I have known both good and bad listeners. Undoubtedly, I have been both. For me, there has always been something magical about the good listeners, something I have long wished to understand and possess. There is an energy, a vibrancy, an intimacy to the way they connect with others. At some point, I wondered if this was not born in them.

Then, a couple of years ago, I read an article on literal listening, and I have since become more intentional in the way I engage in conversation. Too often, we get so caught up in our own stories that we are unable to truly hear the stories of others. We let our insecurities guide the way we interpret, the way we interrupt, the way we become distracted.

When we allow our hearts to listen more purposefully, though, we not only build community but also foster our creativity.

••• The Why •••

As I contemplated the good listeners in my life, it occurred to me that nearly all of them are expressively creative beings. Somehow this makes sense. So much so that I think the other good listeners must be closet creatives, and maybe the bad listeners have yet to awaken their creative spirit. After all, creativity is about more than innovation, imagination, or artistic expression. It is also about connection and communication—to ourselves, to others, to the natural world and beyond.

But to connect and communicate effectively, first we must listen.

By listening mindfully, we are able to hear more curiously and compassionately, we are able to connect more deeply and vulnerably, and we are able to feel more at peace with what is. By creating space for others to be honest and authentic, we serve their person and we cultivate our relationship with them. And ultimately, we become more enlightened, more inspired, and more understanding of ourselves through others.

As I have developed my practice in literal listening, I have come to see it as a muse of sorts. While the very nature of creative expression is to share something with the world, it is our absorption of the world that fuels our content. And when someone is actively sharing part of their story with me, I like to believe it is meant to be woven into mine in some way.

••• The How •••

Still, there are times that I find myself listening without heart and without focus. Times that I find my ego illuminated and shining a little too brightly. Slowly, I am learning and I am growing in this practice. And while I am surely no guru of literal listening, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of the ways I am nurturing this practice within my own life and creative journey.

  1. Silence + put away your phone. This is so simple yet so effective, and I actually feel quite strongly about it. By putting your phone on the table, you are letting the person across from you know that you are not solely focused on them. Every time your phone dings or vibrates, your connection with that person is broken and they are made to feel like you have somewhere more intriguing to be. About five years ago, I went from a smartphone to a flip phone while trying to climb out of debt. During that time, my phone felt kind of boring, so it was easy to leave it in my purse while being social. Now I have a smartphone again, but the habit of keeping my phone tucked away has remained. And I will tell you, I feel infinitely more connected in conversation when I allow myself to be absolutely where I am.
  2. Keep your phone tucked away. Even when others pull theirs out. This is one I have struggled with at times, because nobody likes to feel as if they don’t have something to do or someone to talk to. But I suppose keeping my phone tucked away is a silent protest, a subtle message to others that I am here to be with them (not my phone) and hopefully they are here to be with me. Similarly, if I am talking to someone and they pick up their phone to respond to a message, I stop talking. Nobody can effectively listen and type a message at the same time, and I have no interest in being partially listened to. Doing this creates an awkward silence and a gentle awareness that their manners are not so proper.
  3. Calm + focus your mind (and hands). Our minds are busy little warehouses, oftentimes doing too much at once. Sometimes in conversation, I find myself forming judgements, becoming offended, processing my reply, or even daydreaming about something irrelevant. When this happens, I pause, take a breath, and refocus. Similar to putting your smartphone on the table, fiddling with your hands (or anything else) is a gesture of impatience and disinterest. To be a good listener is truly a practice in mindfulness, and the more intentional I have become about engaging fully with others, the easier it has become to catch myself being a bad listener and correct my behavior.
  4. Make eye contact. Now this is something almost anyone who knows me will acknowledge is a struggle for me. For whatever deep-rooted reason, I have a tendency to look at my hands or beyond when speaking, but sometimes even when listening. Maybe it is a lack of confidence or an anxious resistance to connection. Nevertheless, I am trying to change my ways, because making eye contact is powerful and emotional. It is a union of sorts, and I have found that it fosters compassion, curiosity, authenticity, and ultimately creative inspiration. Making eye contact also has a way of calming and focusing my mind, just as silencing and putting away my phone does. As I love to say: everything is interconnected.
  5. Think + speak slowly. In our fast-paced world, sometimes I feel the need to operate as quickly as possible. After all, this feels productive. But when I operate slowly, I feel alive and in the moment. This is how I want to feel in the presence of others. We are not machines, as much as we’d sometimes like to be, and when we process our time with others like computers, we miss out on what it means to be human. When I calm and focus my mind, I allow myself the space to think and speak slowly. And doing this allows me to be more thoughtful in my engagement, to listen more compassionately, and to respond more empathetically.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What practices do you keep to foster literal listening? And in what ways does it inspire you creatively?


  1. Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your thoughts & intentions around literal listening. I appreciate your mindfulness & obvious work towards becoming more present with whomever you’re with…a very good reminder! I am very much enjoying your creative approach to living & loving life fully…again, my thanks~

    1. It makes me happy to hear you’re enjoying my writings and approach to life! As it turns out, you are one of the people who inspired my intention to become a better listener. So thank YOU, as well!

  2. Good listening takes work. It is not easy. But, like you’ve said, it is important in making and fostering good relationships. I have never thought about the connection between good listening and creativity, but it definitely makes sense.
    Putting your phone away is a HUGE one for today’s world. We will continue to have less meaningful relationships if we are more focused on the virtual world than the real one… My question to those who are on their phones with friends or family, are you there to be present or are you there to put it up on social media and get the virtual satisfaction?? I want to slap the phones out of peoples hands all the time. I love your phrase “I have no interest in being partially listened to” haha!
    EYE CONTACT!! It bothers me SO MUCH, too much, when people don’t look at me when I’m talking to them. Most of the time they are glued to their phones…
    There are some good bible verses and famous sayings that point to these truths you have stated. Many bible verses talk about being quick to listen and slow to speak, promoting people to be mindful of what’s more important and to think about what they say. Also the famous you have two ears and one mouth is a reminder that even naturally or biologically we are made to listen more than we are made to add noise.
    That quote by Maya Angelou is so true! You never really remember exactly what someone says, but you can almost replicate their words and actions by how you felt when hearing or seeing them. I can piece together events better when there is stronger emotion attached to them. What about you?

    1. You make a really great point about virtual satisfaction, Gabe! Given my nomadic lifestyle and my desire to keep in touch with newfound friends, there are times I record my life purely for the virtual enjoyment of others. I want to share my life with loved ones and doing so via social media makes it easy. But there is a balance, of course, and convenience can leave much to be desired in the realms of authenticity and connection.

      For me, putting my phone down is not only about respecting my time with someone else, it’s also about respecting my time with myself and listening to (and truly seeing) all that is around me. Nowadays, I try to consider the value in taking and sharing a photo or video beforehand. And more often than not, I end up tucking my phone back away. It’s not the “likes” that we will remember, but the memories and feelings that only come with being fully present.

      Thank you for sharing the Bible verses; they are undoubtedly ones that resonate with me.

      So, the next time you want to slap someone’s phone out of their hand, I encourage you to tell them it bothers you (I have had to do this before, and the right friends with make an effort to change). And if they need gentle reminders along the way (we almost always do), simply stop talking if they pick up their phone in the middle of your conversation. It is only through these seemingly tiny acts that the world will ever be the place we wish it to be.

    2. To your question about being better able to remember events to which stronger emotion is attached, I completely agree! By fully sinking into our experiences, they become a part of us. By only recording these events, we put them in the cloud and let them float away. On that note, I believe our experiences only have to power to change us when we are fully immersed in the moment.

  3. This is something I actively learnt to do when I was young, because it helped me to cope with the stress of social situations and not knowing what to say. I discovered that the best way to cope with my social anxiety was to really listen to what people were saying in their conversations with me, so that I wasn’t busy thinking about how terrible I felt, and it worked. I discovered that people yearned to be listened to and I learnt how to do it very well, including all the details like eye contact.
    Ironically, what has turned out to be a struggle for me is that I actually carved out too much of a role for myself doing this and found that I ended up attracting people who were looking for someone they could use as a sounding board. I realised that I did it too well for my own good and had to find balance so that I wasn’t perpetually focused on the other person’s feelings and thoughts to the levels that mine didn’t matter. It’s funny but life really is a balance, trying to create meaningful connections with other human beings while also keeping your own sense of self seems to be incredibly difficult, in my world anyway. The general point though is that this is all proof of just how much human beings need to be listened to, because genuine listening is what helps people to feel validated, accepted, safe, it’s an extremely powerful form of communication. Great communicators never just talk, they know how important listening is.
    With regards to creativity so much, and I loved what you said about the connection. After all, listening is really an expression of an attitude and that attitude extends to our relationship with the world at large. To listen to the world is to engage with the world and allow ourselves to be touched and inspired by it.
    Talking of communication, your post was beautifully written, with so many excellent and succint points, and so ‘human’.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with literal listening, Cassandra! You brought another dimension to this practice that I hadn’t thought of.

      As you said, human beings need to feel heard, and that includes you, too! Unfortunately, there are also people in this world—typically the sounding boards—who are seen as having it all together and not needing to be heard. Because those same people have a tendency to be independent and self-sufficient, they have a difficult time reaching out and asking for an ear. Everything in life is a balancing act, and it’s important to remember our own worth so we can ensure we are equally listened to, even if that means we need to set boundaries.

      I always love reading your thoughts and hope to see you again in the comments. 🙂

  4. In your post, you said, “By listening mindfully, we are able to hear more curiously and compassionately, we are able to connect more deeply and vulnerably, and we are able to feel more at peace with what is.” This couldn’t be more true, and so many times I know I’ve failed at mindful listening with those I care about. I’ve always been a great listener for strangers, but I think I sometimes get caught up in the relationship I have with friends and loved ones, letting my own story and my anticipation of theirs, based on facts I already know, drive the premature internal preparation of response.

    I’ve come to a couple conclusions that help me ensure I’m always weaving their story into my own, as you describe. Putting the phone away is an absolute must. And so is avoiding playing with rings, watches, pens, etc. I silently place my hand near my mouth in what appears to another person to be a “thinking pose” but to me is a subconscious reminder to not interrupt, to guard my mouth, and to wait until thoughts are fully formulated before offering any words. Thinking slowly and replying deliberately and with care mean a lot to people. It’s only taken a handful of times in my life to realize that poor or distracted listening have hurt someone and damaged a relationship.

    I have a question: As Americans, eye contact is often paramount to effectively connecting, but other cultures feel less so. In fact, in several cultures I’ve visited, what I believe to be genuine and consistent eye contact has been perceived as menacing or even flirtatious. What are your thoughts on genuine and deliberate listening and communication when trying to connect with those from other cultures?

    1. You make such a great observation, Brandon! I, too, find that I am often naturally a better listener with strangers than loved ones, and for the reasons you mentioned. I actually hadn’t made this connection myself, and you have given a new dimension to my literal listening practice.

      I like what you wrote about using the “thinking pose” to both show your interest and guard your mouth from speaking too soon. Honestly, this might be one of the bigger challenges of literal listening, because it requires us to silence our mind and ego. It’s often easy to forget what distracted listening feels like until someone reminds us through their own distracted listening. Like you, I value when someone engages in slow and thoughtful dialogue, but the unfortunate truth is that this is at odds with our digital, fast-paced, immediate-gratification world. Still, I think intentional dialogue is worth cultivating, and hopefully doing so will foster a renewed path for mindful social engagement.

      Your question about eye contact is interesting! Now, I’ve personally never been very good with eye contact, but I think that is more me than the culture I was raised in. However, I have been told that West Coasters are worse about eye contact than East Coasters, at least when it comes to strangers. We tend to look away quickly when someone catches our gaze. I wonder how this difference extends to conversation with acquaintances and loved ones, though.

      I’d be curious to know which countries have perceived your eye contact differently than you intended. Outside the United States, I’ve only traveled to Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Morocco, and all over Europe (mostly Western). I don’t know that I’ve made any correlations about my eye contact and how it was perceived, but this doesn’t surprise me since I am not the best with eye contact to begin with. As I get better, though, I will have to take note when I travel to see if there are cultural differences.

      1. Jessica,

        Thank you for your reply! It really is amazing that we take for granted our listening skills with close friends and family versus strangers. It’s a regular, conscious effort to ensure I don’t attempt to infuse my opinion too early–or make assumptions about what they’re saying before they’ve said it.

        Regarding the “thinking pose,” I was recommended it by a really great mentor of mine. He’s a retired Marine Corps master sergeant and a fellow Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (I’m a sexual assault [sort-of] counselor, in addition to my normal job). I had a conversation similar to this with him one time and asked his thoughts on why I was able to provide counseling and effective listening to victims but found myself so often interrupting people I would otherwise have thought I’m more connected to. I think my extreme desire to help victims of sexual assault led to being fully aware with attentive listening, but my own preconceptions and stories filtered into other types of communication.

        So here’s another question: How do we slow down our minds and turn off the internal Google to ensure mindful conversation? I know how to minimize my interruptions, but I still want to be cognizant of rushed or incomplete communication. Is it our internal monologue that needs to be shut off or somehow satiated before communication? Interesting thoughts.

        Morocco! I’ve always wanted to go there. I had an option to do a quick trip there from Tenerife a while back but ended up not going. I have this silly vision of Aladdin’s Agrabah when I think of Morocco–I suspect when I visit I won’t be riding any magic carpets! You’ve got a pretty impressive travel background. My observations with eye contact have varied in Europe and Asia. In Asia, they tend to find consistent eye contact menacing. The Japanese, in my experience are often relatively soft-spoken and submissive, flicking eyes downward during communication. While living in Korea, I found they were more inclined to let eye contact linger, but had a similar submissive nature. However, Korea has a lot of American influence and sensibilities, so they’re not afraid to get in your face a bit. The Chinese I met tended toward something in between the other two. Lastly, living in Germany, I’ve found that lingering eye contact with the opposite sex has apparently been noted as flirtatious and borderline inappropriate, especially when seen by third parties. And with the same sex, it’s a bit menacing to be overly focused. Of course, this is massively generalized and based solely on my own opinion in my limited living and traveling abroad.

        1. First of all, I want to say how wonderful it is that you are a sexual assault counselor. While in college, I became involved in this cause myself and continue to advocate for sexual assault prevention and awareness however I can. It sounds like you serve in the military? Have you seen the documentary “The Invisible War”? I think you would find it both insightful and inspiring considering your involvement in sexual assault prevention.

          Also, I think there is much to be gleaned from what you shared about our tendency to listen closely and compassionately to victims but less so to those we hold dear.

          There is a philosophy in mindfulness about the “beginner’s mind,” and I think this practice can be helpful when it comes to silencing our inner monologue or judgements and listening to loved ones with fresh ears and an open heart.

          A promoter of daily journaling, I also wonder if a dedicated practice done first thing in the morning might help in quieting the mind in conversation? I’ll admit that my journaling practice is far from perfectly routine, and I definitely feel the difference in my day when I’m not able to put pen to paper soon after I rise (or sometimes at all). My mind seems noisier, more cluttered, more restless. Do you journal?

          I absolutely loved Morocco! In part because it was a completely new world to me compared to other places I’d been. Last year, I went on a seven-week backpacking trip and wrote about it on my blog ( I think you’d enjoy the read. You, too, have an impressive travel background! I’ve yet to make it to Asia, but have it in my plans. I wasn’t surprised to hear your thoughts on how the various Asian cultures perceived your eye contact, but I found your experience in Germany to be quite interesting. My youngest sister is deployed to Germany right now and I’ve visited a number of German towns with her and never seemed to notice anything in the way of my eye contact. Though, again, I don’t have the strongest eye contact to begin with. I also wonder if there is a difference between eye contact from a man versus a woman?

          1. Thank you. It’s one of those jobs I wish did not have to exist, but the fact that the empathy and coordination of resources come natural to me are indications that I need to dedicate part of myself to people who can benefit from it. You’re correct in assuming I’m in the military. I’ve been in about 10 years, and doing this additional job for about 9 years. I have indeed seen “The Invisible War.” Fortunately, much of the information provided and the specific cases–and harms to cases and individuals–have been addressed in policy and processes. However, the fact remains: If we are to continue in this profession of honor, it is our duty to epitomize honorable treatment of humans, including combating the prevalence of sexual violence and providing avenues for healing survivors. I think we’re doing pretty well with the coordination of healing, but we’ve got some work yet to go on developing actionable and memorable training that helps minimize violence and helps people improve communication. (You’ve got me going on this now! One day perhaps I’ll unleash my full spiel, but for now I’ll save your blog from that!)

            I just had to google the “beginners mind.” I vaguely recall reading about that years ago when I first started studying Buddhism, but the fire hose of information I flooded myself with seems to have pushed it to the back. I’m going to do a bit more reading on it. I think you’re right that it connects nicely to approaching listening without judgement or preconceptions.

            I have not maintained a consistent journal in a long time. I used to be pretty faithful on…wait for it…MySpace! However, these days I tend to justify it away to do something else. That said, I’ve recently acquired a book and a really great new pen. My plan, due in part to your posts on journaling, is to practice handwriting and calligraphy as I journal.

            Lastly, to closeout the conversation on cultural eye contact variations, yes, I think there is a difference when considering eye contact between the sexes. Eye contact between opposite sexes seems to more likely to be indicative of possible flirting. It’s difficult to tone down my eye contact. I think it’s so deeply ingrained that I have to just hope I don’t come off flirtatious, intimidating, or something other than the open and conversational person I am.

          2. This is a powerful statement: “If we are to continue in this profession of honor, it is our duty to epitomize honorable treatment of humans, including combating the prevalence of sexual violence and providing avenues for healing survivors.” You truly are a perfect advocate for sexual assault prevention, and I have no doubt you’ve made an impact on countless survivors. I would absolutely love to hear as much as you’re willing to share on this topic, and maybe you’d even be interested in writing a guest post focused on the matter?

            I remember getting newsletter updates from “The Invisible War” team a few years back, which highlighted progress made in policy and such. Not sure if they stopped sending newsletters or if I somehow got unsubscribed. Nonetheless, I have never forgotten the stories told in that documentary (particularly the male survivor), and I continue to recommend it.

            Yes, I know the feeling of flooding one’s mind with endless new information that inevitably falls out of focus but is still resting in there somewhere. Until I responded to your comment, I’m not sure I’d really applied the concept of “the beginner’s mind” to my literal listening practice. See, comments help me too!

            Practicing calligraphy and penmanship while journaling is a great idea! You can begin with a few simple lines a day and let it grow from there.

            As for the eye contact, I think this is one of the challenges of being a traveler. I’ve often wondered where our obligation as travelers falls in immersing ourselves into the local culture. To me, travel is not just about the traveler exploring new everything, but also about the locals experiencing the travelers who come into town. I suppose the most important things are to be safe and to respect explicit boundaries, but to otherwise be yourself.

          3. Jessica,

            Thank you for the kind words. I’d love to contribute a post or some commentary to one of yours. Sexual assault prevention and response are very dear to me. Training, speaking, outreach, and countering false consensuses are the best ways for me to maximize healing and prevention within any circle of influence I’m able to touch. I’ll send you an email from my personal address and you can file it away in case inspiration strikes and I can be of any service.

            – Brandon

          4. I’m so glad you’re interested! I look forward to developing something impactful and meaningful with you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *