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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?