I grew up in a small town in Arkansas where my grandmother owned a beauty salon. She worked there until the day she died, alongside my mother and aunt (who still work there). Giving genuine attention to the people who walked through the door was (and still is) the family business. It didn’t come from a sense of business obligation—it was truly the way my grandmother, aunt, and mother believed they should be toward others. It was what they believed was important—not just cutting hair but helping people feel they were receiving undivided attention. Care that, in that moment, was given just to them.
A big part of that care was the gift of listening that they gave their clients. Each client would sit and have their hair washed or cut or styled or colored, even makeup applied sometimes, and the conversation flowed. Trouble with a spouse or a child. A sad story. A funny story. A good movie they’d seen or a good book they’d read.
That is where I learned that it is important to give your attention and time to other people. To take the time to listen to their stories and hear what they have to say. When you do, something special happens. Something that matters.
I didn’t know then that the many hours I spent in that salon were seeds for me becoming a psychotherapist. As a therapist, I do more than just listen—and I’ve learned to listen in very particular ways—but the truth is that listening to someone is one of the most helpful and healing things you can do.
I’m not talking about “listening.” Nodding and saying,” Uh-huh,” in an absent-minded tone. Focusing on what you want to say when the other person stops talking. Deciding you’ve already made your mind up about what you think the other person is saying.
I’m talking about full and focused attention where you suspend your ego and assumptions and fears and let what the other person is saying to you sink in deeply and affect you. To take what they’re saying as a truth, even if it conflicts with yours. To be curious about it. To meet them in that place as best you can. And to let it change you.
Here’s a description of this kind of listening that struck me because it doesn’t just describe the actions of the listener, Martin Luther King—it also describes the profound impact of his listening on the speaker.
I tried to think of something clever to say, but before I could speak, [Dr. King] asked why I was studying for a Ph.D. in art history. He asked what I thought art could accomplish that other forms of communication could not. I remember that he said that he’d rarely discussed art, or even thought much about it. As I stammered an answer I cannot recall, he listened with the concentration of someone who genuinely wanted to understand. Never before, and rarely since, had I witnessed such authentic humility. It was so simple, so powerful a form of energy that for a few moments it freed me from bondage to myself. (from “My Dinner With Dr. King” by William Hood, The New York Times, April 3, 2013)
It freed me from bondage to myself.
When I first read that sentence, I paused and reread it and then went back to read the whole paragraph again. I felt it, and I was struck by how the author had said it. And yet I am not sure I can elucidate here what it seems to me to mean, but I feel I must try because there is a dearth of this kind of listening in our world. I want to try to express how it feels to be listened to in that way so we can know it better. So we know how it feels to receive it and, thus, how it important is both to receive it and give it.
My sense of what the author meant—though I can’t truly know—is that Dr. King’s way of listening to him freed him from limitations he didn’t even know were there. We tend to wall ourselves in, in the way we see ourselves. But when someone listens without an agenda or judgment and is genuinely and supportively trying to understand something that is true for you, you can let your truth flow freely and you find yourself saying things you didn’t know you felt or thought. It removes the chains of feeling you must be a certain way and say certain things, and you find expansiveness in yourself that can be quite surprising.
That is a place where we come to know ourselves more deeply. That’s where we find new possibilities and courage. That’s where our shame and inhibitions fall away and we find new connection with ourselves and with others.
Part of the beauty to me too is that the change isn’t only in the person speaking. The listener is changed too because he is undefended and receptive. He is willing to sit with the truth he is hearing and let it ripple in his inner world.
And so the process becomes an upward spiral. The listener responds out of their growing understanding, this furthers the self-reflection and self-understanding for the person speaking, the listener responds, and so on.
Do you have at least one person who listens to you this way? Do you try to listen to others this way?
I always feel the urge to ask such questions of you at the end of each blog post, and I always struggle with whether to do it. It seems cheesy to do so, but as I am writing this particular blog post, I am suddenly realizing that it is because I long to talk with you. I long for us to have the kind of conversation that I am describing here. I want to ask you these questions in person and to really listen to what you say. And in saying that, I suddenly feel the limitations of this format where I can speak to the entire world and, yet, I never get to listen, really listen, to what is true for you.
© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2013.