Ears Wide Open: A Guide into the Power of True Listening
Viktoriia Rozsokha
Viktoriia Rozsokha
April 26, 2024
Ears Wide Open: A Guide into the Power of True Listening

Imagine you’re sitting in a bustling café. Your ears, like finely tuned instruments, pick up every sound around you. The background noise blends into a symphony of people’s chatter and clinking dishes. This is hearing in action — a passive, involuntary process that requires no conscious effort on your part.

But now, consider a different scenario.

You’re at the same café, but you’re deeply engaged in a conversation with a friend or colleague. Despite the noise, you’re hanging on to every word they’re saying, sensing their emotions, understanding hidden meanings, and responding thoughtfully. This is the essence of active listening — a deliberate, conscious act that engages your mind, body, and senses.

To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music’, but to the essence of the person speaking.
— Peter Senge (system scientist, author & MIT lecturer)

Active listening is an intentional and mindful process, requiring focus, empathy, and a sincere desire to build bridges with another person. Unfortunately, it’s a skill most of us take for granted: research indicates that we only truly grasp about a quarter of what we hear. It’s a bit like owning a top-of-the-line camera but not knowing how to capture the perfect shot.

Recognizing that active listening is the doorway to building connections has been a huge discovery for me. Since I started to harness its power daily, it has enhanced my relationships with others and myself, enriched my capacity to learn and grow, improved my ability to conduct research, and empowered me to coach and mentor others with empathy.

Luckily, this capacity is deeply ingrained in each of us, and with simple practice, we can all reap the rewards of its power.

So, how can we turn our ‘hearing’ ears into ‘listening’ ears?

Engage all of your senses

When your partner responds, “Everything is fine”, do you pick up on the silent layers hidden in their body language or tone of voice? And when you offer feedback to your colleague, do you detect the unspoken expressions in their eyes or gestures?

Words, while essential, often fall short of expressing the full spectrum of inner thoughts and feelings. The art of true communication is hidden in our ability to look beyond words, and to listen for context, emotions, and subtle nuances.

Escape the word maze; invite all your senses into the dialogue

We’ve all experienced moments when we struggle to find words to convey the meaning. It can be deeply frustrating when someone doesn’t quite grasp the essence of our message. To feel heard and attended to, we need to feel those unspoken reassurances of understanding and connection.

When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.
— Stephen R. Covey (educator, businessman & writer)

In practice, that means putting away your phone and paying full attention to all that you hear, see and feel.

How is their body language? Are they gesturing or pacing? What about their facial expressions? Are they tapping their foot nervously, or is it excitement?

Combining these observations with the words being said, you’re better equipped to understand the viewpoint of the person speaking without imposing your own interpretations.

But when it comes to listening, remember: you’re not just waiting for your turn to talk.

Keep it open—and embrace the silence

The importance of listening is obvious when we seek information. To this end, it’s useful to craft a few simple open-ended questions to keep the conversation flowing and get to the bottom of what you want to know. By open-ended, I mean questions that cannot be answered with “Yes” or “No”.

When in doubt about an answer you’re given, repeating the statement you found most intriguing back to the speaker is another effective technique for extracting more information.

However, both approaches rely on your capacity to create a quiet and uninterrupted space for your conversation partner.

Yes, silence can often feel awkward or uncomfortable, making many of us nervous. But these in-between spaces are a breeding ground of discovery, fresh insights and connection — embrace them curiously.

Silence isn’t scary, it’s a powerful ally
“Silence is as full of potential, wisdom and wit as the unshown marble of great sculpture”
— Aldous Huxley (author & philosopher)

Notice moments of contemplation, curious sparkle of the eyes, or a deep gaze into the distance. These silent cues are usually telling us to hold our tongues a little longer.

✨ Patience tends to pave the way for remarkable insights.

If you’re the one feeling nervous by silence, gently re-shift your focus from yourself to your conversation partner by following the myriad of available cues and engaging with them in a silent interaction. It limits the room for self-consciousness, quiets our inner critic, and allows for more fluidity.

The REAPS of active listening

Now that we’ve gone through some essential practices towards becoming a good listener, you might be wondering, how can I put all of it into practice?

Inspired by Julian Treasure’s RASA, I’ve expanded the concept further into REAPS, your guiding star in the art of active listening:

RECEIVE: Open your mind, eyes and ears, observe subtle cues and movements, and gently mirror them back to build rapport.

EMPATHIZE: Convey empathy and interest through your body language. Lean forward, nod subtly, and try to put yourself in their shoes to relate better.

ASK: Use open questions and clarifications to express genuine interest and reduce misunderstandings.

PAUSE: Create space for silence through focused presence. Avoid planning your response and let the conversation unfold naturally.

SUMMARIZE: Periodically echo back what you’ve heard and recap key points to show understanding and interest.

To reap the benefits of these practices, weave them into your daily routine and start transforming your world one conversation at a time.

Yet, quality listening extends beyond simply gathering information from others — it starts within ourselves.

Listen to your inner world

As a psychology enthusiast, accredited coach, UX researcher, and lifelong seeker of personal development, I’ve experienced a hidden truth: the art of genuine listening to others begins with the ability to deeply and non-judgmentally listen to ourselves.

“In the silence, you tend to meet yourself.”
— Julian Treasure (author & speaker)

The good news? You don’t need to wear robes or meditate on a mountaintop. Small but meaningful adjustments to your everyday routines can do the trick.

One of the simplest ways? Breathe.

Of course, you’re already breathing (I hope!), but are you really ever aware of the way you breathe? Let’s try something together.

As you read this, notice your breath. Don’t try to alter it, simply observe it.

Now, take an active role. Inhale slowly, feeling the invigorating sensations flow through you. Pause, then exhale, releasing all tension.

As you repeat, tune into your breath and just listen to what’s alive inside. Can you hear it? It’s like your own private concert, available anytime, anywhere — no ticket required!

Forget Spotify subscription, opt-in to your inner symphony

You can extend this awareness to other essential activities such as eating, drinking, or walking.

Here’s another challenge: the next time you sit down for a meal, put away your phone, book or to-do list. Instead, slow down to truly taste your food, appreciating how it activates your senses and fuels your body.

This may feel strange or intimidating at first, especially if your mind is like a hamster on steroids (mine certainly is at times!). But with these simple, short practices we can cultivate the self-awareness necessary to listen actively and respond authentically — not just to ourselves, but to others too.

After all, mastering the art of listening is only becoming more important in this fast-paced, conflicted and increasingly divided world. Embracing it can serve as a potent catalyst for fostering mutual understanding, forging deeper connections, and nurturing a more peaceful future.

So dear reader, let’s listen up!

Special thanks to the brilliant

Adela Paroulkova

for the illustrative artwork 💙