The Restorative Power of Deep Listening

Uncategorized Nov 10, 2020

Did you know that 67% of American men would rather administer a mild electric shock to themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts for more than 6 minutes? 

 That’s pretty crazy, but it’s true.  This was the finding from a series of experiments done at UVA and published in Science Magazine July 2014.  And by the way, it's not just the guys.  25% of women also took the shocking way out of listening to themselves.  

What's going on here--why are so many of us so uncomfortable with listening deeply to ourselves, let alone others?  And what might happen if you stepped up your game, listening more deeply to yourself, to those you are closest too, and perhaps even to those with whom you have profound differences?

This post explores the transformative power of deep listening.  The kind of listening that: 

  • Is rooted in genuine curiosity
  • Seeks understanding
  • Steps outside your own psychology
  • Opens you up to being moved
  • Asks nothing in return—it is a gift, not a transaction


Deep listening matters so much because it speaks to one of the human heart’s deepest desires: to be fully seen and heard for who we really are.  It is rare.  Journalist Kate Murphy, in her book You’re Not Listening recounts that she was moved to write the book by the realization that modern day humanity is losing touch with one of its greatest gifts: the art of listening.  As she puts it: “To listen well is to figure out what’s on someone’s mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know. It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”

So why are so many of us falling down when it comes to summoning up our faculties and really listing for understanding and deep connection with others?  The short answer is that this is hard.  One reason deep listening is hard is physiological—perhaps God’s joke on us, but human beings are built to speak at about 125 words per minute, but our brains are built to process language at up to 800 words per minute.  That’s a whole lot of spare processing power while you’re on the listening side of a conversation.  You might think that would make it easier to listen deeply, but it’s just the opposite.  All the extra processing power means that we can go in all kinds of distracting directions listening to our inner voice and still follow the gist of what someone else is saying.  So deep listening requires an affirmative choice in the face of continuous mental distraction to devote our higher level faculties fully to the task of seeking to understand at a deep level what someone else is saying.   

Another reason deep listening can be hard is because it opens us up to the possibility that we will be moved by what we hear.  And when the issue at hand is something deeply entwined with our own identity we have an instinct to protect ourselves from this threat.  There's some striking brain scan research that shows when people engage with others who have deeply opposing views our most primitive "fight or flight" circuits light up like a Christmas tree.

Challenging as it may be, we're at a point in our country's history where we've never been more in need of deep listening across profound differences. The video provides a set of practical tools and questions to explore how you can step up your own deep listening, beginning with yourself, and your loved ones--and as you feel able, those with whom you may disagree deeply.

Not every divide can, or should be bridged.  But what might you come to understand if you give yourself--and others--the gift of deep, compassionate listening?   



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