The Art Of Listening

Montreal Gazette
Susan Schwartz: Are you listening? There’s a skill to it
There is no such thing as divided attention


MONTREAL – Many of us spend entirely too much time interacting with people who aren’t really listening to us. We know they’re not fully engaged because there’s no eye contact, or because they’re not-so-surreptitiously checking out the phone in front of them, or because they’re fidgeting or playing with their hair or fingernails as we speak. The message I always take from those exchanges is that just about anything or anyone is more important than I am.

There are times when eye contact is not crucial: when it’s just two of you driving on a dark road late at night and you’re each hanging on to the words of the other, for instance. But in a face-to-face encounter, an absence of eye contact is often a sign that someone’s not paying attention. Maybe you’re shy and eye contact makes you uncomfortable. But if you’re looking at your feet, we’re not communicating nearly as well as we could be.

My beloved is a kind, gentle and gracious man about whom I think and speak almost exclusively in superlatives. Sometimes, he won’t take his nose out of the comic or the crossword pages when I talk to him. He says he’s listening. But I am made to feel that I am vying with those pages for his attention – and that they’re winning.

To me, divided attention is an oxymoron: You’re listening or you’re not. You have my undivided attention or you have none of it.

A friend I adore routinely interrupts me to say something entirely unrelated, invariably about herself. Sometimes, it’s all I can do not to ask: Was I not just saying something?

We’ve all had conversations with people who seem to want to talk about little other than themselves. Think Bette Midler’s character in the 1988 film Beaches. “But enough about me,” she says at one point. “Let’s talk about you … what do you think of me?”

For years, I was part of a committee at a volunteer agency with someone whose remarks never followed logically from what had just been said. She had an agenda – and she was looking only for a momentary lull in the conversation to jump in with it.

“When you’re caught up with thinking about what you’re going to say next, you aren’t listening,” as Travis Bradberry, author of the 2009 book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, said in a newspaper interview a few years back.

I understand that most of us are distractible and that, with so much competing for our attention these days, it’s easier than ever to be distracted. My many character flaws notwithstanding, I almost always make an effort to listen when people speak. I try to focus on what they’re saying, as well as on what they’re not coming out with directly but perhaps implying.

“A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said,” I read in an essay on listening skills on

A family therapist told me once of an important lesson about empathy he’d learned from a mentor. He remembered how she had stepped out of her shoes at the front of the classroom to show that the role of the therapist was to step into the shoes of the person she – or he – was trying to help.

In a story in Lois Blyth’s book The Joy of Friendship (Cico Books, 2014), Lynn Kelly was describing to a work friend a problem she was having with a family member. Her friend listened patiently, Kelly recalled.

And when she had finished speaking, the friend looked at her and asked: “Can you find any love in the relationship?” Kelly, who blogs at, had to think for a minute, she writes, “because this question forced me off the self-righteous track I was on.”

Often we are so convinced that ours is the sole valid position that we consider only someone who takes our side unequivocally to be listening to us. But that’s not so. As the Greek philosopher Plutarch said 2,000 years ago: “I don’t need a friend who changes when I change, and nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”

Kelly took a breath and replied: “Yes, there is love in this relationship.”

Her friend responded: “Then go with the love.”

To Kelly, that conversation “was like a seed planted in my heart. Every time I recall it and make use of it, it grows. Over time, it has created a habit; to seek out the love element in every situation, especially when I feel ensnared.”

But that conversation would not have unfolded as it did if her friend had not been listening.

As a young person, I did not feel especially listened to. I’m not painting myself as a victim: I suspect it was because I rarely demanded to be heard. But what my experience taught me is that to listen to another is to give that person a priceless gift.

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen,” observed Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the 1996 book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. “Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”

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