“The Practice of Listening”


Here my beloved Aunt Cary pays careful attention to some object I am explaining to her. Since I am just a little over one, she has to patiently wait for my first words to tumble out. The Pope asks us “where there is shouting, let us practice listening.” I read recently that silent is an anagram of listen, a good reminder of the correlation of the two words.

One of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines comes from MacBeth: “ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We are surrounded by loud shouting and disagreements. We find people shouting over each other, believing that the loudest voice is the right one. But when I taught and my students were being loud, I got very quiet and waited. After a while, they noticed and quieted down themselves. Yelling for quiet would have been counterproductive.

Listening takes practice. It asks us to quiet our habit of preparing our response and actually hear what the other person is saying.  This morning, trying to connect with a woman at the gym, I asked her if she had begun a job since graduating from college. I was ready to hear the start of her career. Instead, she replied that she was tired of everyone asking her that since she hadn’t found a job. She clearly didn’t want to talk about job hunting. My first impulse was to give helpful suggestions. But by listening to her I was able to really hear what she was telling me. I was able to change the subject, much to her relief.

My brother didn’t speak until he was three. The family joke was that I hadn’t let him get a word in edgewise. Listening was not my strong suit in my youth. But as I have aged, I have learned that most people do not want to have to shout to be heard. They would rather just be given the quiet space to speak. We can take a cue from my Aunt Cary and wait for what they want to say.


8 thoughts on ““The Practice of Listening”

  1. The impulse to give advice sometimes is not helpful and you are much too wise to change the subject. I can imagine you with a quiet tone in a classroom. The power of silence.


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