The Art of Listening

In the first of two pieces reflecting on her time working with Comhlámh Hannah R a student from Maynooth University’s Youth and Community Work Programme, writes about the art of listening.

Since the beginning of your time, you were listening, hearing. Hearing the murmurs of your mother’s voice through the thin veil of her skin with which she held you so carefully. You were unable to respond with words from your inside sphere, instead you might give a kick or move as a way of saying, ‘I hear you, outside world.’ And when you were born, you had perfectly formed senses. Two ears and one mouth, maybe that was for a reason, at least the old wives tail thinks so.

The art of listening was not something that came naturally to us. As children we always wanted our voice heard, our belief, opinion, want, need known. We would cry at unsociable hours, wouldn’t share our toys and had to learn to be sympathetic. We might grow out of these behaviours but some core strands remain. Moving on to when we were older, writing a CV and trying to show our best side… ‘strong interpersonal qualities’ we would type or at that interview when we’re asked ‘so tell me about a time when you worked well as a team…’ I bet the words good communication skills made an appearance. And although we would like people to believe that we are good at listening, we could always do well to try and improve. Listening, with our mouths closed and ears open is harder than what we might imagine.

My reflections come as a response from a course I recently attended called Skills in Development Education where a group of us from all walks of life came together to explore social injustice issues and in processing the themes we covered, we learnt to listen, really listen, to each others words. During the course we shared deeply about out experiences and past oppressions, things which were passionate to us and things which made us tick in this metropolis of a globe.
One particular activity found us sitting in threes, each taking time to answer the statement ‘Something I love about being alive on this earth is…’ Now that’s a pretty deep statement to mull over, especially with other people, but the groups threw themselves into it to have an experiential learning session. The speaker would be invited to share for two and a half minutes whilst their team mates listened, no questions asked, encouraged not even to make a noise of solidarity or nod their head. Just pure silence whilst their sharer spoke openly. I found this exercise powerful. My reflections from this activity are outlines in 3 short segments.

  • Listening brings a deeper understanding of one another, it builds real relationships.
    It’s good to start off with the basics and talk about one of the most beautiful and human elements to flow from the art of true listening and that is: connection. Us a humans are fundamentally communal beings, we love to be with one another enjoying good times filled with love and laughter.
    We can only really do this if we spend time getting to ‘know’ one another and a fundamental part of that is listening deeply to each other as we share the depths of ourselves.
    There was an article published in the New York Times from 2015 about the 36 questions that help you fall in love, a study by psychologist Arthur Aron who supposedly saw two strangers fall in love in his lab. As one may imagine the questions to start off simply, in fact Aron designed the experiment to start in the deeper end of the love pool with the very first question being ‘If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?’ Listening ears are gently needed from the get go as all manner of ideas and reasons could be shared here. This experiment from Aron suggests that to get to the most intimate parts of each other, we would need to allow our peers to speak freely and offer them in return a welcoming and open space for them to do that. Imagine what the other 35 questions are like! You can find out here at with the article to New York Times here:
    During the exercise we did in the Skills in Dev Ed workshop, I saw tears emerge from the task as groups were vulnerably open with one another and laid the foundational building blocks toward faithful friendships. One of the keys to a successful marriage, or any relationship for that matter, is to listen deeply and forgive quickly and when we listen to what people are saying, not just words but underlying meanings, we start to understand who they are, what they believe and where their deepest desires lay. This allows us to connect and be able to build trust. Trust equals a flourishing relationship with mutual connects. This leads to the next point:
  • Sharing stories equals empowering people
    Listening to people share their stories sparks reactions in us that say ‘yes, me too!’ or ‘You experienced that as well? I wonder why that happens.’ We allow ourselves to start unpacking experiences in a trusted frame whereby we feel valued by the people we are sitting with. We start to feel empowered, and want to move that into action.
    The speakers in the groups of three from this activity felt empowered. They felt valued, respected, accepted, all powerful emotive gestures which allowed the sharers to go deep within themselves to their identity: who they were and why they enjoy being on this planet. It is said that a problem shared is a problem halved and for so many of us, when we share our stories whether that be of current stresses or past turmoils, we feel better for unpacking those things, we feel a lightness, breath a sign of relief. We feel moved to action and feel empowered to do something about our injustices or the injustices of others. By simply listening whilst someone shares from their heart and taking time to acknowledge their stories, we can begin to help them feel valued and therefore supported into
    action or reflection. In turn, this feeds into our own response of the situations and we can start building potential collective action together whether that be, planning an activity you both enjoy, meaningfully unpacking traumatic/difficult experiences, organising a collaborative project or combating a social justice issue. Listening leads to empowerment leads to movement.
  • Listening allows us to be to be informed and therefore, more able to critically analyse
    On a slightly different note from my other two musings, listening to people and their stories, allows us to analyse ourselves as well as the world around us. Our beliefs are shaped by our upbringing, defined by the culture around us and how our peers behave. As we get older and start to become young adults, we might travel the world and encounter different ways of living and see how other people groups enable their worlds to operate. There is a wealth of opinions within us, some formed by our experiences and others we have picked up as we have walked through life. Listening meaningfully to our peers can enable us to consider the world in a different light, maybe even discover insights to our behaviours and why we do things. This can then lead us towards a more critical view of why we do things as a society, why people who govern us make the decisions they do and what we can do to change those structures. All of this because we engaged in meaningful conversations of listening to each others stories and opinions, powerful stuff!

I saw the people shift as they listened to their sharer’s stories during this exercise. These stories were deep and born out of inner musings some of which reached straight into the hearts of the listeners. You could almost feel the intense fog rise in the room of concentration, of people connecting. It is rare that we ever get to speak to people with no interference whatsoever, just eyes to eyes and words to ears. But why? Has the art of truly listening slipped from our grip as we walk about life seeking quick fixes, instance gratification and always having our questions answers. We are more than capable of this as intellectual and emotive beings. There is a beauty about stillness whilst allowing people to openly share. It’s powerful, it enables us to see the hearts of friends in vulnerability and build meaningful friendships that empower, allowing us to critically analyse the world and mobilise ourselves for a brighter tomorrow.