Just Listen

There’s an old joke about a therapist who operated on the theory that all problems could be traced to dreaming about fish. A patient came to him complaining about his lackluster sexual relations with his wife. Here’s a transcript of their first session together:

Patient: My wife and I just aren’t getting along, doctor, you know, in bed. Between my work schedule and her dealing with the kids, it just feels as if the magic’s gone.

Therapist: Hmm … tell me, do you ever dream?

Patient: Uh – sure I dream.

Therapist: Tell me your most recent dream.

Patient: Well, I don’t remember much. I was walking down a city street, and there were lots of tall buildings and cars but no people.

Therapist: Had it been raining?

Patient: Not sure – I guess it might have been.

Therapist: So there were puddles?

Patient: I suppose there could have been puddles.

Therapist: And, I’m just guessing here, might there have been fish in those puddles?

Patient: Wow – I suppose there might have been…

Therapist: [triumphant] Aha! Just as I suspected – fish in the dreams!

While most of our own biases aren’t so obvious and don’t seem so silly (at least to us), the point is that if you’re listening for something specific, you’ll tend to hear it. Listen for hesitation in the voice of your partner and – boom! – you’ve ‘caught’ your mate lying to you. Listen for warning signs of trouble in your relationship and before you know it, they’ll be everywhere.

The problem doesn’t so much have to do with what you’re listening for, but what you’ll miss by listening for it. Whether it’s the affection in your partner’s voice, the look of love in their eyes, or the heaviness in your child’s heart when they’re telling you about what happened at school today, if you’re listening too hard for something else, you’re liable to miss what’s actually there. But as soon as you expand your listening palette, you’ll be able to hear more and more.

There’s an exercise I do near the beginning of every Supercoach Academy training where I ask participants to deliberately listen to one another in three distinct ways:

1. Listening to affirm

One of my favorite movie scenes is the moment in Pretty Woman where Mr. Hollister, the salesperson in the posh Beverly Hills clothing store realizes that Julia Roberts is not a poor street urchin wasting his time but actually the girlfriend of mega‑millionaire Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis. He suddenly becomes the most attentive man in the world, nodding his head in continual agreement with everything Gere and Roberts say like a bobblehead doll. After a few minutes, he checks back in with Gere:

Hollister: Mr Lewis? How’s it going so far?

Edward: Pretty well, I think. I think we need some major sucking up.

Hollister: Very well, sir. You’re not only handsome, but a powerful man. I could see the second you walked in here, you were someone to reckon with…

Edward: Hollister.

Hollister: Yes, sir?

Edward: Not me. Her

When we listen to affirm, we do it with the best of intentions. We want to make sure the person knows we’re listening and that we approve of them (or at least of their right to be who they are). But the actual effect, more often than not, is to miss what’s really going on with them in an effort to make them feel that we care. And as a result, they feel disconnected from us, even if they’re flattered by the level of our attentiveness.

2. Listening to negate

A less socially acceptable but equally common listening habit many of us have developed over the years is listening in a way that subtly (and not so subtly) lets the person know that while we may have to listen to them, we don’t have to like it. I remember when I first moved to Hollywood, I was at a dinner with a television director and his actress wife. The wife studiously ignored me throughout the meal, talking over me and aiming her conversation at everyone else at the table. It wasn’t until we were left alone together at one point that she finally made eye contact, looking me up and down as if I were a horse at auction.

When she finally spoke, it was to say, ‘Are you funny?’


‘Are you funny?’

Not sure how to react, I said, ‘I’m pretty funny.’

She nodded, more to herself than to me. ‘That’s all right then. You’re good looking enough to be funny, but if you weren’t funny, you’re not good looking enough to be here.’

When we listen to negate, we’re not just negating what the person is saying, we’re often negating their right to say anything at all. The result, once again, is a sense of disconnection, this time deliberately cultivated.

3. Easy listening

‘Purpose tremor’ is a phrase that describes the slight shake most people notice in their hands when they first try to thread a needle or remove the shinbone in a game of Operation. Simply put, our muscles work better when we’re not trying so hard to make them work better.

What’s sometimes less obvious is that the same thing is true with our listening:

It’s easy to hear what’s really going on with other people when we’re not trying so hard to listen to them.Click To Tweet

When I introduce this third kind of listening, I often do it by way of analogy:

♦ Listen like a video camera, without any preference forwhat’s being recorded.

♦ Listen like a rock with ears.

♦ Listen the way you might listen to pleasant background music.

♦ Listen with nothing on your mind, as though the sound waves are simply passing through you like radio waves through the air.

At first, both the person speaking and the person listening tend to find ‘just listening’ a bit uncomfortable. We’re so conditioned to listen to affirm or used to listening to negate that listening with nothing on our mind feels as though we’re not listening at all. But after a few minutes, the ever‑present underlying connection between any two human beings shows. The speaker often winds up feeling truly seen and heard for the first time in ages, and the listener often feels that they’ve known the other person for years and the conversation was like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

When you listen to another person with nothing on your mind, things will also jump out at you that turn out to be the keys to unlocking whatever is going on for that person.

And when you learn to listen to yourself in the same way, it becomes easier and easier to separate your own mental chatter from the still, small voice of wisdom within.

If you want to learn more about ‘just listening’, choose a few non‑crucial conversations to experiment with and notice what you can about your own habitual listening filters….

  1.  Are you listening to affirm or negate? For problems or opportunities? For holes in other people’s arguments or openings for resolution? What they’re saying with their words or what they’re communicating with their feelings?
  1. Experiment with listening to other people with nothing on your mind. Let your thoughts come and go as they will. Notice how much more you hear, both spoken and unspoken, and whether or not this actually does make the other person feel ‘heard.’ There’s no effort necessary – just allow the words to come in and pass right through you, with nothing on your mind and no agenda as to what you want or don’t want to hear.
  1. As a bonus, try “just listening” to yourself this week. Notice if your sense of self‑intimacy and connection with the deeper mind increases.

Have fun, learn heaps, and enjoy!

With all my love,