The majority of us who are fortunate enough to be able to hear, constantly employ our auditory faculty along with our other sensory systems of sight, taste, smell, and touch to navigate our world. At times, we may feel bombarded by sounds that include noises from nature and our man-made environments. At other times, we might be uplifted by music. Instrumental and vocal sounds can transport us to places of pleasure. But most frequently, we use our ears as part of our two-way communication system. We alternate our listening to others with sharing our thoughts through speech. We engage in conversations.
Successful conversations, however, are hard to achieve. We most often participate in a conversation because we want to make a point, we want to be heard, or to be understood. The other party is usually doing the same. Each of us spends most of our energy composing our thoughts, preparing for speech, and delivering our ideas. We rarely spend enough time listening to the other’s point-of-view. Stephen Covey (1989) suggested: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (p. 239).
The words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ contain the same letters, and to listen so that one truly hears another, one must slow one’s self down and remain attentively silent. Our human minds have the capacity to think faster than people can speak. We need to slow ourselves down to be present and to effectively hear. To listen silently means to refrain from an immediate response, to refrain from judgement, to refrain from composing one’s own ideas during the listening. It means we need to listen with our heart and soul, not just our ears. It means we need to listen as if we were the other. We should attempt to hear the meanings, feelings, and emotions behind the other’s words. We should listen with purpose and compassion; to truly try to understand, to make meaning of the other’s perspective. Once we understand where the other is coming from, we are in a better position to make ourselves understood.
Through my research on wisdom, I learned that wise individuals are very interested in the art and practice of listening. In fact, one nominated wise individual agreed to participate in my research mainly to find out what the other participants thought of the skill of listening and its connection to wisdom. This woman, Rachael, a former therapist, offered: “One’s listening capacities are hugely important. If we are able to listen carefully and take that information and then still have other questions, then it feels to me as if we can get closer to the intention or the wish of the person we are speaking to” (Taylor, 2015, p. 156). Asking thoughtful and respectful questions for clarification and exploration at the end of one’s listening, can demonstrate your honest intent to understand.
During one of the study’s discussion sessions on wise exemplars, Rachael recalled an interview she had witnessed that was conducted by Jean Vanier with Mother Teresa. Rachael recounted:
What I loved was the way Vanier bent to really negotiate to be present. It was a kind
of leaning into the spirit of Mother Teresa, and it’s an image that I carry with me
because—not that I think we need to physically lean into people, but I think that
emotionally it’s hugely important to lean toward people. With Vanier’s image, that had a
huge effect on me at the time (Taylor, 2015, p. 156)
And Rachael’s descriptive image of Vanier leaning into Mother Teresa has stayed with me as well. The physicality of that image speaks volumes about the effort it takes to be present and attentive.
Body language plays a significant role in our communications with others. Being attentive to the other’s body movements and gestures can provide clues and additional information behind the other’s words. It can also help keep you focused during the conversation. Maintaining eye contact with your conversation partner, can also prove helpful in keeping you engaged and invested in the conversation.
Anne, another participant in my doctoral research, spoke of the importance of listening with respect: “I am a good listener and I think…you have to hear what people are trying to say, you have to read beyond the message in a way.” She added, “People have to feel that you really value them…that you value them and their opinions” (Taylor, 2015, p. 155). This concept of respectful communications emerged several times through my studies. A nominator from my Master’s research on wisdom, Phyllis, observed: “Wise people don’t talk very much…that quietness, it’s like there is an observation and a listening that is openness, non-judgmental but there is even almost an element of love in it and understanding” (Taylor, 2010, p. 5). Simply stated, another study participant, Barbara, said of wise people, “they are good listeners” (Taylor, 2010, p. 14).
The concept of being quiet as well as respectful so as to be a better listener was repeated by participants throughout my studies on wisdom. Nominator Bill said: “I think you must always be respectful, and quiet allows you to be a better listener. (Taylor, 2010, p. 5)
Ruth, one study’s wise nominee, related how: “I do what I call listening for the whisper” (Taylor, 2010, p. 17). She spoke of a time when as a healthcare provider, she was challenged to reduce wait times in an out-patient cancer clinic. The problem had been pervasive for some time and was initiated with the introduction of supposedly improved equipment. Ruth interviewed everyone and listened for what she called the whisper. One of her junior employees successfully surmised the situation and offered that workers did not trust the new equipment. They were manually retesting results to ensure patient safety. They were reluctant to rely on the new equipment. Also, no one had the authority to review and re-calibrate the new equipment settings other than a high-level manager who had no hands-on opportunity to manage the equipment. The solution to the department’s problem arrived as a small whisper in a group meeting. Ruth took it upon herself to follow-up and solved the problem, ultimately eliminating the work duplication and reassigning management responsibility for the machine’s calibrations. Ruth described multiple lessons resulting from her experience. She learned there is tremendous capacity around us and you have to enable that capacity to find solutions; you just have to listen to find solutions to problems. She learned to give credit where credit is due and to consider everyone involved; not to make assumptions about people no matter what their status, and to consider everyone’s opinion. Ruth listened for the whisper. She paid attention, as we should do in our own life situations.
Besides listening carefully, wise individuals wait to be invited before offering any advice. They are not out to prove themselves in any way or to impress others with their words of expertise. Although they are willing to share their ideas, they wait to be invited and their sharing takes on a helpful tone as opposed to an authoritative tone. For example, one nominated wise participant, Heather, said: “I don’t think it’s even necessarily giving advice, it’s saying well this is what I do, you can try it if you want, and yeah often that’s appreciated” (Taylor, 2010, p. 30). Edward agrees, “I don’t give any advice unless they ask for it” (Taylor, 2010, p. 25), and Ruth says, “I ask first, would you like a thought on that or would you like some advice…I ask if it would be welcome” (Taylor, 2010, p. 32). Wise individuals listen carefully and use their words economically.
The Greek philosopher, Diogenes, is credited with the following quote: "We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less." This great advice speaks volumes about listening carefully to others, as does the following nursery rhyme which concisely sums up the message in this paper:
A wise old owl sat in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?
Old English Nursery Rhyme
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal
change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Taylor, C. E. (2010). The experiential process of acquiring wisdom: How wise individuals report
learning life lessons (Unpublished master’s thesis). Queen’s University, Kingston, ON,
Taylor, C. E. (2015). Wisdom as a social phenomenon: An inquiry of wise acts and wise
practices (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Queen’s University, Kingston, ON,