Open your ears

Listening to someone is a most powerful gift and the gateway to building healthy relationships, writes Marian Byrne

 Marian Byrne

If I offered you a way to improve the quality of all your relationships, which involved no cost, therapy or lengthy training, would you be interested? If I told you it would also help you relax more, reduce stress and give you access to more information than you could ever ask for, would you be even more interested?

Epictetus once observed: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” What can often happen, however, is that we have so many opinions or stories to share, so much advice to pass on, so much to ‘fix’ that we do it the other way around. We let off steam, we talk at people rather than to them and often are not really listening because our mind is elsewhere or busy waiting to jump in.

Listening is the gateway through which we connect with others and get to know them. It is the best way to show someone respect and care and it helps them feel significant. When we really listen to someone they grow in confidence and self-esteem. 

This is true whether you are a parent, manager, colleague, neighbour or friend. It creates a connection whether it is with clients, family, friends or a significant other. We free ourselves of the pressure of ‘fixing’ or rescuing and get to realise that the person will often come around to the perfect solution or action themselves.

Over the past few years the number of people suffering from stress, depression, anxiety and loss has risen and one of the most important and effective supports is to be able to think and talk out loud. The Talk and Walk campaign advocates walking side by side which can make it easier to say what is on your mind rather than looking directly at someone or being in a confined space. Here, again, listening is invaluable.

You may be thinking that we all have to listen to get through the day. That is true but the way in which we listen and the quality of that listening differs.

Level one listening or ‘surface listening’ is when we are interacting with someone on an exchange basis. You tell me your story and I tell you mine. You say you had a bad day and I jump in immediately with ‘me too!’ and then go on to fill you in with the details of how bad it actually was. 

It is also called social listening as it can be on social occasions where the environment is not conducive to long or deeper conversations. 

Level two listening or ‘attentive listening’ occurs when we are listening to the person and picking up on the non-verbal information too. Statistics vary slightly, but studies suggest 55% of the impact of communication is body language, 38% tone and 7% the words we use. 

At this level we are listening more fully, but we may still have an internal dialogue about what we are hearing. We may be running the information we are receiving through our own filters and beliefs and conditioning. We may be judging what we are hearing through the prism of our own personal experience. 

Level three listening or ‘empathetic listening’ is a way of listening and responding to the other person in a way that builds connection and trust. The Chinese character for ‘to listen’ is made up of the characters that mean ‘eyes’, ‘ears’, ‘heart’ and ‘undivided attention’. 

This encapsulates the fact that listening as a whole body experience involves all of these things and is a powerful way to bring our attention and awareness to how we can listen well.

We listen with our eyes to pick up the non-verbal clues such as facial expression and body language. With our ears we hear the words and the tone used. We listen with our heart by being empathetic, not judging the other person or just hearing what they are saying but really understanding where they are coming from. 

We are completely focused on them in that moment and giving our undivided attention. We are not distracted by phones, what is going on around us or our own internal chatter. We are not just waiting to jump in with our story or opinion. We are really ‘present’.

On a day-to-day basis we use level one and two regularly but how often do we allow ourselves to listen on that deeper, holistic, non-judgemental and non-directive way?


On a practical level, look for opportunities to practise your listening skills in the week ahead.

On a day-to-day basis you will engage in a lot of surface level listening while interacting in a social or practical way. Paying for your shopping is a situation in which you usually interact on a surface level. If there isn’t a queue behind you, take the time to ask a simple question in these situations and really listen to the answer. 

If we ask ‘how is your day going?’ and listen and comment on the response it takes the interaction from being a non-event to a moment of connection which could be the difference in the quality of that moment for them and you!

When you are listening attentively in a general sense, start to notice how much information you pick up from body language and tone. When we are on the phone, we tune in much more to the tone and pauses and breathing. This also accounts for the reason why there can be so much misinterpretation with written communication where it can be difficult to tell whether someone is being light-hearted or serious.

Notice if and when there is a mismatch. Feedback what you notice, if it is appropriate to do so, and you will be able to give that person some valuable information. For example: 

  • “I notice that when you talk about x or y your face lights up”. Or “I notice that every time you mention x or y you sigh”.
  • Look for opportunities to listen emphatically with your eyes, ears, heart and undivided attention.
  • If you find it hard not to ‘jump’ in with your own comments or perspective (old habits die hard) take a conscious breath every time you notice the urge to do so. Another technique is to put your tongue to the roof of your mouth while you are listening which makes it slightly harder to jump in. It is akin to trying to start a car in neutral.
  • Notice how these conversations go. You will probably find that you will have an opinion or advice and don’t offer it. The person usually reaches a conclusion themselves. It may not be quite the same conclusion as yours but they will feel more empowered if it is their own. 
  • Most of the time they will feel better having spoken about how they are feeling, even if there is no obvious resolution at hand. Take some time to reflect on the following:
  1. How did you feel during the conversation?
  2. In what way was the outcome different from what you might have expected?
  3. What did you learn about the other person?
  4. What did you learn about yourself?
  5. What impact did the interaction have on the relationship?
  6. What might you do the same or differently next time?
  7. If and when you need to talk, who are the people you can turn to who will listen and not judge or try to tell you what you should do? There will be times when you are looking for advice or for someone to offer a boost, but when you need a supportive ear you should have someone in reserve.

When we listen to someone it is the most powerful gift we can give both them and ourselves.


Marian Byrne is a business and life coach, and this extract was taken from her new book Adding Life to Your Years, published by Veritas.