Columnist Daniel Cantor Yalowitz: Listening deeply, with intention


Published: 08-13-2023 9:40 AM

The act and art of listening is something very few of us were actually taught, but, somehow, we’ve managed to learn, at least on a basic level. A fundamental, intrinsic, and universal human behavior and activity, listening is what enables homo sapiens to communicate, to connect, to build relationships — to show and share our feelings, express our thoughts, and take time to make our lives more meaningful. Moreover, where would we be if we didn’t possess the potential and the skills to listen to one another?

Where listening gets most difficult is when we disagree, when we are in conflict or simply have opposing or differentiated viewpoints. The more “dug in” we get around a particular point of view, the harder it becomes to take in another’s perspective. Who of us was systematically taught how to deal with conflict, or even how to quiet ourselves in order to listen with patience and respect? If we’re fortunate, we may have role models in our lives who provide guidance, support, and encouragement for us to build the skill-sets integral for effective, deep, and compassionate listening.

Hearing is a physiological function, as long as we have the physical capability to do so, we hear sounds and noise, in our backgrounds and foregrounds, virtually all the time. Sometimes this gets overwhelming, and we may shut down because we’ve lost the attention and intention of knowing who and what to actually “listen” to and focus on. As compared to hearing, “listening” is a psychological function, one that involves choice, volition, intentionality. With all the close-up and distant aural information that exists, it is an ongoing lesson and skill to sort through how and what to listen to, which means having the capability of shutting other things out at the same time. But, on a deeper level still, listening is a spiritual experience. It involves letting someone else “in,” meaning that we need to have enough basic trust to focus on what they have to share, at least to start! The issues here of personal choice, intention, and attention are all critical to move from hearing to listening.

In this highly bifurcated and turbulent time, effective and deep listening are rare actions. As the speed of life continues unabated, along with a persistent need for immediate gratification, the patience and wherewithal necessary for compassionate and thoughtful listening are both lacking and in great demand. Politics and governance on every level offer ample evidence that true, genuine listening is becoming a forgotten art.

What do we need as human beings in order to listen attentively and respectfully when someone speaks about things we disagree with?

For one: let’s show patience! If you believe that what goes ‘round, comes ‘round, we’re better off “holding our fire” and taking time and a deep breath to take in all of what someone else is sharing even if we hold another perspective. Double-standards don’t work, so if we don’t give thoughtful intention and attention to others, why would and should they do so for us?

Secondly, let’s show respect! Trash-talking and gossip (the kind so prominent in today’s politics), dissing, interrupting, distracting, or ignoring another person is inhumane and proves nothing. It only distances one of us from another and creates divides between people that is alienating to say the least. Respect and common courtesy, perhaps long-lost arts in themselves, are both core values and invaluable in our everyday human interactions.

Third, let’s offer our curiosity: what can we learn from another’s (highly) differentiated viewpoint? How can and does deeply listening support our understanding, sensitivity, empathy, and knowledge base? When we are authentically curious, we open ourselves to new ways of seeing things, even if we still disagree. For me, the opportunity to ask my favorite question, particularly when points of view do not align, demonstrates care, respect, patience, and curiosity. The question? “Is there more?” is a great way to engage deeply with others and show our best sides.

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Taken together, these three elements form the critical core for making each of us into good and better listeners. We can ill afford to let down on any of these during a time in our culture and our history when each and every voice counts. Perhaps if we knew that we’d be given a good “listening to,” we might not be so eager to interrupt, to distract, to put ourselves first. What a difference that would be!

We all want, and need, to be heard and listened to. As has been said elsewhere, to have a friend, one must be a friend. Similarly, to be listened to, one is best off listening to others. In order to build lasting and sustainable families, relationships, community, and organizations, listening deeply and with intention must become and remain one of our foremost priorities.

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz writes a regular column in the Recorder. A developmental and intercultural psychologist, he has facilitated change in many organizations and communities around the world. He is former chairman of the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and his two most recent books are “Journeying with Your Archetypes” and “Reflections on the Nature of Friendship.” Reach out to him at