Listening from the Heart

By Sandra Shaw Homer. Sandra, 71, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. She has lived in Costa Rica for 28 years, where she has taught languages and worked for environmental NGOs. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Why is it that people don’t really listen to each other?  Oh, they hear one another, but not what’s lying between the lines and under the words, not the emotional content, not the things – unconsciously hidden or not – that the other is saying, not the “where is this coming from?” question we should all ask when someone else is speaking to us.

Not all conversations are fraught with emotional content, but all are driven by who the other person really is.

People often just want to have the “last word.” Or they want to prove their superior knowledge of the subject.  Or even humiliate their interlocutor with a “grand slam.”  Some simply reply with an irrelevant acknowledgement that words have been heard, if not really understood.

I have often wondered at the failure of communications between people, especially in personal relationships where the stakes can be so high.  Someone has to “win,” so the words of the other are barely heard.

I believe this is a product of our hurry-up western culture.  We don’t take the time any more to sit quietly and absorb what the other is saying, think about it a bit, and then try to offer some response that will further the discussion in a positive way.  Indigenous cultures do this.  They make a ritual of important conversations, passing a pipe, or a feather or noise-maker of some kind so that the one given the portentous object knows that it is her turn to speak without interruption and that all the others will really hear – and think about – what she is saying.  Then, in a very democratic way, the ritual object is passed to the next person, who may take quite a while in forming a thoughtful response.  In this way, important decisions of the group are made, and every participant is satisfied that he has been heard.

How did we lose this?

It’s a stress-filled world we live in, and all relationships – from the personal to the business – suffer for it.  I am reminded of when I was a young public relations consultant out on my own visiting my first referral, a psychological management consulting firm.  We had a cordial greeting in reception and went into his office.  I took my notebook out of my briefcase and prepared to make notes as we talked.  I asked questions.   We spoke, or rather the potential client responded to my questions, for about an hour.  And at the end of my note-taking, with a fair understanding of what was needed, I shoved my notebook into my briefcase and started to pull myself out of my chair.

“One moment,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?”  I’m sure my face reddened as I planted myself back in my chair.  I had no rehearsed phrases about my experience or expertise and I fumbled my responses for an embarrassing 15 minutes.  I learned that, in whatever relationship, the communication needs to open up in both directions, with both parties listening carefully.  My new client was a psychologist, and I was intimidated (I’ve always believed psychologists have this magical ability to see right through you), so I failed to remember that he needed to know something about me other than that I was a good, but shy, listener.

I later invited a man with superior experience into the firm – a creative guy, who was more entranced with his own creative input than with the client’s real needs or budget.  With my ability to listen, I was able to temper his impulsive responses, but the partnership didn’t last long.

All lessons learned.  Now I know to quiet myself inside when someone else is speaking – especially people I love – so that I can offer the most thoughtful, even wise, responses.  This has taken a lifetime to work on and get right.  And I’m in no way perfect.  I have just learned to leave my own little ego in the pasture while I really hear what the other person is saying.  And sometimes it makes me want to cry, because the process of listening from the heart, as well as the head, activates empathy – a precious commodity these days, and something every writer must cultivate.

14 comments on “Listening from the Heart

  1. Virginia Lamont on

    super essay on a critical subject- listening. She has an unique ability to point out her own and others pitfalls and how our relationships suffer when we neglect to listen with patience and understanding. I fully and personally embrace her words – a wonderful piece of writing!

  2. Vicki Duncan on

    I am saving this out to remind myself to listen. Perhaps others will see it and also be inspired. Thank you Sandra for writing this beautifully and concisely.

  3. sandra picado quiros on

    Inspiradora lectura, sensibilizar a nuestras sociedades modernas, que carecen de estas habilidades que nuestros antepasados tenian y ponian en practica, es esencial si queremos mejores pueblos y países.
    Gracias por tan linda y acogedora lectura.Me encanto el tema.

  4. Alex Risen on

    This essay reminds us, and we need to be reminded, that it is a lifelong process to learn to be, and to remain, empathetic, through listening. Well said!

  5. Allyson Latta on

    Like so many essential human qualities, Sandra Shaw Homer reminds us, effective listening takes patience and practice. In this candid essay, she reflects on a couple of her personal experiences and on the benefits of listening. Most important, perhaps, is the empathy that results. This is an encouraging reminder that we can all become better at listening from the heart.

  6. Marten Jager on

    Listening is an art that takes deliberate practice to master. So often we are locked up in our own busy (internal) worlds, that it is difficult to open to the experience of someone else, and listen with empathy. I love how Sandra Shaw, draws from personal experience and the practices of other cultures to highlight the importance of listening. She poses real obstacles faced in the western world, that seem in part driven by a me-first mentality. By quieting ourselves, we remove the mental clutter and the needs of the ego. And make better steps towards empathetic listening and allowing our loved ones (and all people) to be heard. Inspiring piece of writing!

  7. Wendy Thornton on

    This was a thought provoking article in these very stressful times—and highly political times. There was a time when I was a much better listener than I am now. I am a native of CA, but have lived in Texas since 1983. I have always been a liberal Democrat. But I have been married to a Republican for almost 41 years. I used to listen to him and his side on politics. My parents, at least my father, were also Republicans. I respected them and the other Republicans in my life. But I cannot listen to them anymore. After years of basically feeling like my views are stupid and just emotional, I cannot remain quiet. I am one of those angry women who believe that the old white conservative men in this country are trying to take my rights away. My husband is socially liberal and is supportive of planned parenthood, birth control, etc. In the recent past he assured me that Republicans would never reverse Roe vs Wade. Well, I don’t believe that anymore and I cannot listen to Republicans denegrate women and people of color and the poor of our country. I am listening to my heart, and it tells me to care about the less fortunate and people of color that are not receiving justice because of the color of their skin. To care about all people regardless of their religion, their sexual orientation or anything else that makes them “Different” from WASP politicians and corporate America. Here I am, 68 years old, fearing for the future of my country, something I never felt possible before.

    • Sandra Shaw Homer on

      I “hear” your fear and anger, Wendy, and I share your distress at the failure of empathy in the current political scene, a feeling you so clearly express. A psychologist friend once told me that anger is not a primary emotion — look behind it, and you’ll find fear every time. That’s what’s happening in the US, and if we listen we’ll hear a lot of frightened people. And their fear is being stoked by a frightened man trying to make himself feel more important. How sad, really.

  8. Suesan Saville on

    A beautifully written reminder of what is essential. Lessons I have been relearning all of my life. Aging has made me a little better at controlling my impulse to jump in rather than listen. A lovely piece.

  9. Catherine Nicholas on

    This is an excellent article, and as always, Sandra writes with her language skills obvious. I am constantly reminding myself to listen. Friends just passed a ruling that in class that we would pass a little flag on to the n3xt person and only the holder would have his/her time to talk with nobody interfering. This forces us to pay attention and not break their train of thought.
    Listening is showing respect for another’s ideas.

  10. Avani on

    Wow !
    Dear Sandra <3 so beautiful to hear your sweet voice in your words!
    So important, and yu are so wise, i'ts an honor to meet you in Costa RIca!
    Thank you so much for sharing this prescious wisdom, I admire you a lot, I am your fan, I absolutely have so much to lear with you!
    I love you and miss to go swimming with my angel friend!


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