Here’s the single best word of advice I’ve ever learned: Listen.
When I was young and confused, trying to figure out how the world works, I had to listen. When I traveled the world and encountered new cultures, it was even more crucial to listen. Learning sociology meant learning more deeply how to listen. In the wilderness, trackers showed me how to listen. As a coach intent on helping people, my first task is to listen. As I train coaches, I find myself saying it over and over again: listen.
Right now the world seems to consist entirely of huge changes and challenges. With so much uncertainty, so many pressures, and such intense feelings coming from so many people, listening is more important than ever. So if you find yourself in a situation that feels unfamiliar and unnerving, here’s your first best step: listen.
During the past few months, I’ve been listening more intensely than ever before. I recently noticed that tuning into people and situations happens at four levels. Looking at things this way has helped me to listen more skillfully, and to learn more faster, with less stress. I thought I’d pass on the idea in the hope that it will help you, too.
The Four Levels of Listening
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as we get different news reports about the world, as experts give us advice about how to stay healthy, as we see more and more articulation of social injustice.
The way to avoid overwhelm isn’t to listen less but to listen more. I’m not talking about spending sheer person-hours listening. I’m talking about listening at deeper levels. I divide these levels into ear listening, body listening, heart listening, and soul listening. Here’s how they break down.
Level one: Ear listening
Our brains are built to scan the audible environment, listening for anything that might be especially important for us. There’s something called “the cocktail party phenomenon” that shows how sophisticated this kind of listening is. Maybe you’ve noticed it yourself: At a crowded party (remember crowded parties?), the room may be filled with babbling voices. But if someone says your name, even from across the room, your ears will pick it up, separate it from all other sounds, and rivet your attention on it.
Ear listening is what makes your dog or cat prick up its ears, turn toward a sound, and prepare to react with defensiveness or delight. It grabs our attention (“Someone’s talking about/to me!”) and also alerts us to the emotional tone of the information.
Too often these days, I see people listening only at this level. Everyone’s on edge, everyone is worried. Many are justifiably outraged. When we hear someone trying desperately to be heard, our raw nerves react defensively. Instead of listening more deeply to one another, we hear heightened energy, interpret it as attack, and start shouting back. This frightens others, who become more disturbed than ever. Conflict escalates, cooperation and compassion disappear. Ear listening is only the beginning.
Level two: Body listening
If you hear something that makes you feel tense, notice your reaction. Instead of shouting back, breathe slowly and deeply to let your body know you’re not in physical danger. Keep listening, and let your body begin to feel the energy coming from other people.
If we can take these simple steps to stay calm and present, our whole experience of listening can change. Where we initially heard a harsh attack, continuing to listen calmly can show us what isn’t apparent at first. We can empathize with someone who’s exhausted, heartbroken, terrified. All these emotions can sound like antagonism to the ear. But when we let others’ words and emotional nuances land in our (relaxed) bodies, we often begin to understand what they’re really trying to say. This helps us relax even more, which means we create a safer environment for the other person to express themselves calmly.
On the other hand, if someone really is antagonistic, listening calmly can help us notice exactly where their words defy logic or make us feel manipulated. Body listening, which picks up emotional tone with amazing accuracy, will always help us hear the truth of a situation.
Level three: Heart listening
Once our bodies are relaxed and we’re able to discern more about other people’s intentions, we can decide just how far we want to open our hearts. As we listen, breathing slowly, we can actually feel with our physical hearts how to respond wisely to any situation.
Our hearts contain clusters of nerves as big as a cat’s brain, and the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain does to the heart. As you listen to anything important, check to see whether your heart wants to move forward or to back off. When you’re being lied to, you may feel an inexplicable desire to move away, even to literally run. When someone is telling the truth, even though the words may be hard to hear, you’ll feel a softening and opening in your chest, a desire to hear and understand more.
After years of coaching, I’ve come to believe that heart listening creates a field of energy that others may actually feel. (Magnetometers can measure the electromagnetic output of the heart several feet away, and the energy continues indefinitely at levels too subtle to be measured by instruments.) One open heart can calm many others. As more hearts open, everyone begins to communicate more gently and to hear one another more accurately.
Level four: Soul listening
During the past few months, over and over, I’ve found that my fearful ear listening gives way to the listening of the body and the heart. At that point, something takes over that doesn’t feel conscious or controllable. It’s as if a bolt of love flows through me and toward everyone around me. I call this “soul listening”: two aspects of one consciousness connecting, hearing our shared experience in separate bodies.
When I disagree with someone, soul listening allows me to hear their confusion and pain. That doesn’t necessarily mean I change my mind when I hear rage or prejudice. It means I listen with less fear and with more awareness that mindless attack is a far weaker force than compassion.
Despite the ugliness that can come from frightened people, listening from my soul shows me that there’s far more love being expressed than there is hatred. The hatred is harsher and scarier, so it catches my attention. But the love is coming from many more people. When I listen with my ears, body, and heart, my soul is available to hear the wise voices of millions who refuse to give in to fear and bitterness. They may be angry and insistent, but they’re not cruel. Their aim is to create a world that is safe, just, and happy for all of us.
Full listening is the golden ticket
So when your first reaction to the news or a friend is knee-jerk attack, stop. Take several deep breaths. Keep listening—first with your ears, then with your body, then with your heart, and finally with your soul. This is how we learn the truth about the world and one another. This is how we make overwhelming changes, and forces feel a bit less overwhelming.
When I look back at all the times I had to listen most intently, I realize that they were all “growth spurts” for my entire being. Having to listen closely made me more mature, more capable, and much, much more at ease. That means these eventful times can be a gift to all of us: a time when we have to listen, and therefore learn and grow.
Listening completely, hearing at all four levels, doesn’t just teach us how to live. It makes us wise. It pushes us beyond our limits and into new strength. When we listen completely to one another, it bonds us together, moving away from harm and toward peace. It helps us know how to take the strangeness and clamor of this astonishing time, bring the full strength of understanding, and use what might seem calamitous to create a safer, calmer, better world.