Wednesday, May 1, 2013


As Mother’s Day is almost upon us, I thought to write about my mom, Shirley, who was a master in the art of listening. Her amazing skill was natural and may have been her single greatest creative talent. Shirley listened with her entire being… with her ears, eyes, body… with her soul. She listened with patience and empathy; with intuition, and most importantly, without judgment. Her ability to literally “feel” what people were saying was a magnetic force that attracted friends, family and even strangers to the comfort that her presence brought them.

It wasn't her wisdom, nor was it her advice that attracted people… she rarely offered either one. It was Shirley’s “in the moment”, concentrated listening that encouraged an outpouring from whomever she was engaged with. When we are truly listened to, it encourages us… allows us, to unfold and expand. Simply put… it makes us feel good and naturally comfortable.

What were some of the Secrets of my Mom’s ability as a master listener? First, and maybe most importantly, the secret is simply “silence”.  Sincere listening requires us to quiet the mind, be peaceful, and totally in the moment without any predetermined attitude, and without judgment. Our focus is entirely on the other person, with no distractions; easy but direct eye contact, and a heightened awareness of body language. Communication experts estimate that as much as 80% of a speaker’s communication is non-verbal, and that body language… notably the eyes, facial expression, breathing, and posture, can speak volumes. This physical state of the speaker is as important, if not more so, than the spoken word. Sometimes, even with no words at all, feeling can be conveyed with a single glance. It is this instinctive interpretation of emotion and attitude that can be quite different than the words we hear. The more we develop a better awareness of non-verbal communication, the better listeners we become.

I often say that “we should listen carefully for what people are not saying”. Practicing this discipline adds an awareness and skill to the active listening process. This practice helps us understand how people really feel. Words alone, especially emotional words, rarely reflect the true meaning of the spoken word.

Awareness of body language is instrumental to listening deeply, and while providing enormous insight, there is much more to becoming a master listener. In order to correctly internalize true meaning and avoid misperceptions, a great listener is silent 80% of the time and asks clarifying questions about 20% of the time.  Good questions bring the topic into sharper focus and prompt the speaker to clarify their thoughts while verifying the listener’s perceptions. It summarizes by pulling ideas, facts and feelings together, confirming one truly understands what is being said or communicated.

My dear Mom, Shirley, was really good at this role of listening. She would seamlessly act as a mirror reflecting back to the speaker what she thought she heard… asking simple questions, repeating the speaker’s own words, nodding her head, leaning in and connecting with deep empathy. It was magic. It was an act of love. Conscious, focused, empathetic listening is a powerful “Secret of Life”.

It is much more important to be interested than to be interesting.”                              
 – Jane Fonda