The lost art of listening



By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.


I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!


We chose to listen to one another.


In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.


Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

28 thoughts on “The lost art of listening

  1. My son was fortunate enough to go to a very small private school for gifted kids through eighth grade. He had a phenomenal social studies teacher who taught the children the Harkness method of discussion. They were taught not only to contribute, but also to grade themselves on how well they were able to listen, echo back, make connections between various contributors’ ideas. If only every child could have that opportunity, it would go along way towards making our world more civil.

    1. What a fantastic education! I haven’t heard (pun intended) of this…def. intrigued!

      My theory about Canadians — not original! — is that, in being an officially bi-lingual and bi-cultural nation, it forces even the most virulent unilingiuists to reckon with the 2 founding nations: France and Britain– and that listening may even require you to listen in another tongue.

      So we learn early to listen en deux langues!

      I had drinks last night w a friend from camp I hadn’t seen in decades, visiting NY from Ottawa — she is Anglophone but also teaches in French. I think that’s very cool, and boy do you listen HARD when it’s not your first language.

      1. I speak French and Spanish — and am a DOLT compared to any well-educated European (for one) who may speak 4 or 5 or more.

        The geographic isolation of the U.S.does it no favors in this regard — Canadians living in the Anglo-dominated west still get all commercial products labeled in French as well. No escaping it!

  2. College students are being taught that listening to those you disagree with is the equivalent of condoning violence. Hard to see how we develop the art of listening when the “other guy”can’t be allowed to even open his mouth.. 🤔

    1. Good one, Cindy. A lot of people think of listening as “The time when you figure out what you are going to say next”. So many people would rather die than give up a point in an argument, seeking to prevail rather than get at the truth.

      1. I’m often struck in “conversation” — esp. in NYC media circles (which is why I avoid them!) — that it’s really “blabblablabla I am SO IMPORTANT” monologues — and very little curiosity about the other person, or interested replies to anything we/they say. So rude and so boring.

      2. I went to a memorial service last year..and the eulogy was so remarkable, I made it a point to talk to the man who gave it afterwards. He was SO friendly, SO attentive, SO (inexplicably) interested and respectful of me and my husband.. Turns out he was Ronald Reagan’s old debate coach back when he ran for office. I thought that was just fascinating because while clearly accomplished, he was completely genuine, humble and (you guessed it..) such a thoughtful listener.

      3. Nice! I am sad to think this is generational…but I suspect it’s only going to get worse.

        There’s also a cultural piece to it…Americans are socialized to be “real friendly” which (exhaustingly) often means being DELUGED with someone’s monologue/revelations — and yet no curiosity about the person they’re info-dumping on. This just happened to me AGAIN at a press event filled with other journalists; half the “conversations” began with verbal resume-flashing.


      4. I wonder about the generational aspect..but being around a lot of older people I have to say all many of them want to talk about are their ailments..kinda the opposite of bragging but still very little airtime for others to get a word in edgewise- Maybe it’s like you American thing? I’ve thought a lot about the guy who gave the eulogy..and the fact that he was a debate coach..if you think about it, that makes sense doesn’t it? Being an effective debater (esp on live TV) would require a keen ability to really listen carefully to what the other person is saying so that you can address or counter his points/digs/insinuations…AND YET…if you watch debates these days (or interviews) it’s all about NOT answering what you are asked and just blowing on about what you want to talk about instead.. so I you said..UGGGHHH! 😩

      5. HAHA!! I’m telling you..some days it’s all I can do to drive around in my car (no radio on) just imagining myself on an the beach of course..alone.. except for the drink boy who just smiles at me and nods when I point to the cocktail I want on the laminated menu. 🌴

      6. My long exchange that I refer to here — w a woman reader whose views are quite different! — was ONLY possible (and even enjoyable for both) — because we listened carefully to each other and responded politely to each other’s points. Maybe not a coincidence that we’re about the same age…i.e. a cohort that grew up listening!

  3. I listen to the children I teach. not only what they say, but how they say it. sometimes they do not have they words yet to say what they are really feeling or what they mean exactly, but if I listen closely enough, I can usually get to the root of it.

  4. I’ve been visiting the woods nearby and the craving really is to listen to the sounds of the trees and birds, away from the cacaphony of traffic and never ending conference calls. For that hour or so, it’s the crunch of dried leaves, a train’s hornin the distance and the breeze.

    It’s the only way to recharge after my work, which involves long hours of listening as well and like you said, it means the silences and pauses and what’s not said.

  5. Jan Jasper

    Whenever possible, I avoid people who are only interested in what they have to say and seem to have no curiosity about the person that they are talking to, or I should say talking at. Not listening is a real pet peeve of mine. Just for the record, as a longtime Toastmaster member, I can tell you that Toastmasters clubs also teach listening skills.

      1. jan Jasper

        I agree with you that the majority of the time, when someone asks “How are you?” they don’t give a damn how you really are doing. Ever since I was a young adult, this has annoyed me. I used to wage all-out war on insincere small talk. When I was in my 20s, I used to give long, detailed answers, telling people the unvarnished truth about how I was doing. Some people never asked me again, which was fine with me- that was kinda the point. But I actually had a lot of surprisingly interesting conversation with strangers and I ended up making many friends that way. As I grew up and learned that this level of disclosure was not always considered appropriate, I learned to be more selective about when I would speak my mind. My solution in recent decades has been to just answer “I’m hanging in there”. To this day I don’t understand why people ask how you are if they’re not interested. A simple “hello” is sufficient.

      2. I have a friend in our apartment building who asks me — and listens carefully enough I’ve cried in the hallway several times. She is very ill but has a lot of compassion.

        Most people just don’t want to know, which gets lonely and tiring.

  6. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, Your friend in your building who listens so carefully even tho she’s quite ill – what a wonderful person she is. Even if she takes time to listen to your woes, partly to take her mind off her own for a few minutes (and no, there’s nothing cynical about me pointing out that possibility) – that’s still so lovely. Very, very few people show that much interest in others.
    I sometimes watch in amazement when I see people chit-chatting and constantly talking over one another; I am amazed that people seem to enjoy it. It’s like the antithesis of a conversation.

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