Just Listen


My wife was having a hard time of it the other day, and she wanted to talk. I knew she didn’t want me to solve anything or give her any advice; she just wanted me to listen. Listening seems simple, passive even, but it’s not. It’s every bit as active a form of attention as thinking – something I had not fully understood until she told me she knew I hadn’t heard what she’d just said.

“It’s true,” I said. “You were so upset I got kind of overwhelmed and I couldn’t focus the way I have to when I really listen. It takes a specific kind of concentration.”

Strange that I didn’t realize this so keenly until then. I never prepare questions for my interviews. Instead, I show up and ask my first question and then listen. I listen for anything the author says that sparks my curiosity, or surprises me, or seems unique to them. Sometimes, however, my mind gets caught up in something they said, and now I’m not listening, I’m just thinking about myself and my own work and my own life – And Oh, Jesus, they’re almost done with their answer.

Fortunately, with authors I have a stockpile of questions I can ask just about anyone that I can draw on in a pinch. This doesn’t work in marriages, nor, by the way, in writing. Most of what I’m doing when I write, you see, is listening. It’s a different kind of listening than conversations and interviews, but it’s listening just the same.

Because just like the other kind, I can’t get distracted by my own life and my own troubles. I can’t be thinking about sports or politics or some talk I have to give. I have to forget about what I call “myself” and make room for something new. Whenever I think of myself, I’m really thinking of what’s already happened, all the choices I’ve already made. I go to the page to discover.

That’s the beauty of listening, if I can remember it. I’d rather discover than mull over the past; I’d rather make room for the new than enshrine the old. But it takes focus. To make room for the new, whether in conversation or on the page, I must be open to it. I can’t protect myself against it, or demand anything of it. I can’t think I already know. I just have to be there, in that brand-new moment, where life can actually be found.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.