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The (lost) art of listening

It’s something I’ve told my children since before they could fully understand what it meant: God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.

I’d do well to follow the same advice; wouldn’t most of us? Listening, active listening, is a dying art.

Today’s culture lends itself to attention deficit—distractions are as close as the palm of our hand.  When you’re texting someone  but you’re with someone else, it’s impossible to be fully present.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, [insert your favorite social sharing site] are demanding little monsters with insatiable appetites.  For silent apps, they sure make a lot of noise.

In some ways, it’s like we’ve agreed to sanction rudeness.

The lost art of listening well

It’s a scene I’ve seen far too many times: a family with children or a pack of teens are out to dinner, silent, heads down, all with phones in hand.  It breaks my heart every time.

Poor listening isn’t only tethered to cell misuse.  Can you think of a time when you’ve been in conversation with someone and before you finish your sentence, she’s already sharing her version of a similar story?  Before you’ve had time to complete your thought, she’s beginning her response.

I’m hardly pointing fingers, friends. I’ve been Chief of Transgressors when it comes to listening with half an ear. If I’m stepping on toes, good.  That means there will be others to share my pain.

I’ve come to the conclusion that active listening is a skill worthy of developing, if for no other reason than it is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. I’m cultivating conversations with my young-adult children about the importance of listening well, with the hope they come to understand its value both to themselves and others.

The lost art of listening well

It’s a simple thing that will set them apart and, I believe, make a difference in their lives, vocation, and ministries and service to others.

Without intention, it will. not. happen.

To some, I’m stating the obvious, what you already know and practice. To others, consider this a gentle reality check to consider how well you’re listening to both those you love, and with those you come into contact with throughout the day.

• Related: Customer service shalom

A few steps to becoming an active listener:

1. Ask your family if you’re a good listener.

Give them permission to be beautifully, brutally honest. Let the only consequence of their answers be that you become a better listener.

2. Look people in the eye when you’re in conversation.

I know, I know, you already know this. But is this your practice?  It’s a challenge to maintain direct eye contact with people; once you begin paying attention, you’ll realize you look away more than you thought.

My friend Stephanie is great at this. My husband actually commented that she’s a great listener because she always looks you in the eye. When I shared the compliment with her, she brushed it off as no big deal. The thing is, it is a big deal.

3. Put your phone down whenever possible.

There will always be a good excuse to keep your phone nearby when you’re on a date with your spouse or out with friends, but few things better demonstrate I love you and I like spending time with you than undivided attention.  Children of all ages know when you’re listening or only half-listening.

The lost art of listening well

Because I have two in college, I’m conscious of our infrequent time together now more than ever. I do not want a cell phone to rob us of one moment.  I’m afraid that when they were younger, a lot of moments were unnecessarily stolen.

4. Hold your tongue.

Why is this one so hard?  It’s annoying when someone interrupts me before I finish a sentence, and yet I find myself doing the same thing too often. But because I want to listen well, I’m working on this one. I want to care enough about what others have to say actually to give them enough time to say it.

5. Be sensitive to what’s being said.

Sometimes those you’re with don’t need you to say a word. That’s when active listening makes a huge difference—you’ll know they need you to give them the time and space to spill their insides. Your only response might be to shake your head in empathy, to hold their hand, to hug them tight.

6. Be fully present.

Active listening tells the person you’re with, they matter. When you don’t allow All Of The Distractions to yank your attention, they know it. They know the difference.

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Aanie

    I love this post. I don’t think we can ever have too many reminders about the importance of being a good listener. I am a shocking listener by nature and have to consciously work on being better every day but I know still have a long way to go. I definitely appreciate the reminder! 🙂

    • Robin Dance

      Thanks Aanie!! It’s funny, but once I began WRITING this piece, I keyed in to my own inconsistencies with listening well. It’s a simple thing but it sure isn’t easy :).

  2. Carolyn

    Yes. I totally agree with this post. I am a recovering bad listener, and that’s why my one word for this year is “listen”… I’ve been posting my discoveries on my blog each month, and I’ve discovered some surprising things about listening: for example, unlike I’d always believed, listening doesn’t always mean staying quiet! Of course not finishing sentences and not mentally forming your reply before the other person’s done sharing is absolutely part of good listening. But a huge part of feeling truly listened-to is when your confidant hears and validates your feelings. When you feel like the person you’re sharing with is really trying to walk in your shoes and see through your eyes, you feel truly heard – and ultimately relieved, encouraged and loved.

    • Robin Dance


      Yes! To respond appropriately is a marker of great listening! I smiled when you said it’s your One Word this year because “listen” was mine for 2013!! Obviously, I’ve been thinking about this a long, long while :). (I had forgotten that….)

    • Naomi Liz

      Your thoughts remind me of a quote by Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
      That one idea has stuck with me over the past few months–it’s a powerful thing to think about. It’s true–most of the time, I’m trying to think of a response as someone is speaking.

      • Robin Dance

        Great quote, Naomi; thank you for taking time to share.

  3. Ashley Brooks

    Such a great reminder for us to start practicing over the weekend! As someone who doesn’t have a smartphone, I feel like I’m extra aware of when everyone around me is on their phones since I don’t have that outlet–but I’m definitely no saint at active listening either. Great post!

    • Robin Dance


      I’m kind of like a recovering smoker…because I’m consciously NOT allowing my phone to interrupt time w/my people…I REALLY notice when others aren’t doing likewise. I don’t blame them…but it makes me want to stick to this conviction even more!! (Same w/my interrupt thing….I hate that I do it :/.)

  4. Lisa

    I find myself being increasingly not present. I need to work on being more present and listening more. It is the hazard of our time, I guess.

    • Robin Dance


      Which is why we can never be reminded too often, right? We seem to forget so easily…

  5. Amy Ivey

    What a great and challenging post. This is SO true. Thank you for the gentle and gracious conviction. Blessings & grace!

    • Robin Dance

      Ahhh, Amy…GLAD this was timely for you!!

  6. Mollianne

    Well said, dear Robin! You made me think of some of the best listeners I have ever known. When in conversation with them, its like nobody else in the whole world exists but you and the listener. They do look you smack dab in the eyes and hold your gaze. And the feeling of being deeply important to that person is great. I come from a chatty family where you have to fight to get a word in edgewise, where we all have wonderful ideas and opinions and where often nobody hears anything being said. Thank you for this reminder.

    • Robin Dance

      I found myself FAILING on this after it was published! I was telling myself to SHUT UP in my head, but talking too soon :/. I obviously need the reminder more than anyone. I love this post gave you reason to think fondly of others, Mollianne :).

  7. Deborah P

    I need this reminder regularly because I have formed a habit of interrupting. Since it is so annoying when someone does this to me, I cringe at how often I’m annoying to others.

  8. Lisa Reid

    This is one I’ve worked on for years — but I love the reminder!

    My FIL was a wonderful listener, and one of the most intensely intelligent people I’ve ever known. Yet, when I was speaking to him, I was the most important thing in the world; that was obvious in his listening and response style. Years ago, I made this a priority.

    Smart phones definitely make this tougher, but I’m working on being present in the here and now. It’s an ongoing struggle. Thanks for calling it out!

  9. Naomi Liz

    So true, and I think the distractions are just in the listening arena. I find myself very distracted when I’m on my computer…I’m reading things halfway, trying to cook dinner, and maybe checking social media in between. I have approximately 10 browser tabs open right now. TEN.
    However, right now, I am just sitting down without having to do anything else, and it felt so different to just read a couple of good posts, from start to finish. There is SO much good stuff out there (and a lot of noise to go with it) that I often just try to do it all at once, and then I’m doing nothing well at all.
    I don’t think I really have any other tips aside from the need to create boundaries with these things that, while fun, can quickly distract us from real life and the people in front of us *right now*.
    I’m still learning this…it’s a process.

    • Robin Dance


      Your comment? A perfect example of listening well, waiting to respond, and beautifully so. I’m ASHAMED to tell you how many browser tabs I have open right now.


  10. Sharon

    I think this is a great reminder for all of us. I have working on being more conscious and mindful and communicating with someone is a great reminder to practice being in the moment with them. When I’m conscious of it, I’m a much better listener. When I’m not, I’m guilty of jumping in with my stories. It is a terrible habit and I’m looking forward to getting out of it! Thank you for the valuable reminder!

    • Robin Dance


      Thank YOU for confirming my inner nudge to write it :).

  11. Jessica

    This is such a great reminder, Robin and a great challenge! To truly be present and listen with intent is no easy task in todays world of constant technological distractions. I know I have had too many stolen moments where the online world has taken my attention from my little one, I’ve been working really hard to make boundaries around screen use and this post has really spurred me on. Thank you.

    • Robin Dance


      I’m SO glad blogging/social media came to me AFTER my babies were school age!! I wonder how I would have treated them if all this was available to me “then” (ugh). Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

  12. Olivia

    You totally read my mind…
    I wrote a post just like this a few weeks ago.

    “Slowing down your responses and becoming a better listener aids you in becoming a more peaceful person. It takes pressure off of you. If you think about it, you’ll notice that it takes en enormous amount of energy and is very stressful to be sitting at the edge of your seat trying to guess what the person in front of you (or on the telephone) is going to say so that you can fire back your response. But as you wait for the people you are communicating with to finish, as you simply listen more intently to what is being said, you’ll notice that the pressure you feel is off. You’ll immediately feel more relaxed, and so will the people you are talking to.” -Richard Carlson, Ph. D.

    • Robin Dance

      Great minds, Olivia 🙂 😉

  13. Marc Wong

    Listening is creating the best conditions for someone else to be heard. We don’t always make our teachers and family feel heard, so we don’t get as much practice as we need.
    Specifically, to listen is to put someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. Let them finish. Let them think before you tell them what to do. Let them feel.

    • Robin Dance

      Oooo how I like the first sentence of your comment, Marc. VERY well said (and really, all of it).

      • Marc Wong

        Thank you!
        Eye contact is good, but it should be driven by your underlying interest and concern. Care and let your eyes, body, and voice naturally show your curiosity and engagement.
        One of my first tips is to be a good audience. In a real sense, when someone speaks, they are delivering a live performance. It may not be a good one, but then again, how often are we scintillating when we want to talk about our stuff?
        Respond to the highs and lows of what you’re hearing, ask good questions, and just spend more time being a good audience when you listen.
        You can follow me on twitter and pinterest.

  14. Eva

    Such a good reminder. Just yesterday while driving home a I realised that I had spent a conversation just waiting for the other person to finish their words so that I could jump in with my anecdote. I was so irritated with myself- the fact that I was reflecting on it doesn’t make it any better!
    It’s good to have something to work on, I guess 🙂

    • Robin Dance


      Now THAT’S the power of positive thinking! Well done :).

  15. Lina

    So very, very true and I, too, am convicted of this! Especially the interrupter. I hate it AND I do it! Really need to work on that one.

    I once saw a family in a restaurant all bowing their heads (I thought in prayer) only to realize it was in distraction to some devise. It made me so very sad!

    Now, my husband and I like to go out and share a meal and yet do our own thing after a while too. He has anxiety so he uses his headphones and his music and I then read on my Kindle but we are sure to use our time for talking and listening too.

    When out with my girlfriends I wait until one of us takes a restroom break to check my phone to see if there are any messages or missed calls from my kids (who are grown). I had once turned off my phone when I went to dinner with my BFF and came to find out that my Dad has passed away and they were searching for me. THAT is an extreme case I know, but it does stay in my mind.

    Thanks for the post!

  16. Sarah Farish

    Ugh! I am going through a divorce, and almost every time someone asks me about this current season, they are speaking “truths” before I can even articulate my heart’s hurt. Can’t someone simply listen and response with…yes, that does suck??

    But, even as I point one finger at them, I have three pointing back at me. I am “that kid” too. As soon as someone begins pouring out her heart, I begin formulating an intelligent response in my head, making the conversation more about me (and looking smart and helpful) than about them. YUCK!

    So thankful for this post…very helpful to this heart.

  17. Meghan

    I would just add paying attention to body language. I notice that i physically shrink away from uncomfortable conversations. Others don’t often notice, even if i move to another seat or side of the room. I’ve had some conversations that ended poorly because i want able to verbalize well and the other person was too involved in their thoughts to notice my discomfort.

  18. katie roper

    I’ve noticed that if others are on their phones around me I’m more likely to be on my own as well, which means I’m less likely to even initiate a conversion and give them a chance to listen. When there is no available time to not be busy reading something, looking something up or replying to a message, there isn’t the time for real in person, meaningful conversations to naturally happen.

  19. Rachel

    Great reminder! Thank you for sharing.

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