I had never thought much about listening while traveling until I heard a social justice activist named Fran Peavey give a stirring talk in 1984 about her work overseas. For several years, she visited different countries, including the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War, where she sat in parks and train stations with a sign saying “American Willing to Listen.” After hearing her describe people standing in line for blocks to talk to her, I came away inspired to be a better listener.
Fifteen years later, I went on a delegation with the nonprofit, Compassionate Listening, to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Based on Quaker activist Gene Kundson Hoffman’s axiom, “An enemy is one whose story has not been heard,” the organization teaches empathetic listening and other peacemaking skills. During the delegation, we used these skills to elicit the stories of a wide range of people across the divide in that troubled part of the world.
From these experiences, I’ve learned that effective listening is much more than a skill — it’s an attitude of curiosity and openness. No matter where I am — the Netherlands, Nebraska, or Nigeria — I’ve found that focusing on listening enriches my travels. Here are nine listening practices I continually work on:
1. Being Present
I try to slow down and focus, rather than planning my next comment, thinking about dinner tonight, or remembering last night’s concert. Of course meandering thoughts like these — called “monkey mind” in meditation circles — come up, but each time they do, I try to bring my attention back. I also aim to look present. If I’m constantly glancing at my smartphone, I know the person speaking will feel I’m uninterested. With smartphones, we are “forever elsewhere,” to quote sociologist Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation.
2. Trying Not To Interrupt
A fast-paced communicator, I often want to hurry the speaker. Instead, my goal is patience. I also avoid finishing people’s sentences, because I know that some of us (ahem) are as territorial about our speech as we are our homes.
3. Asking Skillful Questions
Yes/no questions may occasionally be necessary, but they don’t lead to interesting conversations. On the other hand, “why” questions can sound confrontational (Why did you say that? Why didn’t you…), while loaded questions (Don’t you agree?) can be manipulative.
Here are some questions and prompts that I’ve found lead to deeper, more engaging conversations:
- What led to that?
- How were you able to…?
- Please tell me more!
- I see what you mean.
- Can you give me an example?
4. Asking One Question At A Time
My father has always shown interest in my life, but sometimes in the past, he asked questions so quickly, one after the other, that I felt put on the spot, as though I was a defendant in a court case and he was the prosecutor. From him, I’ve learned to ask only one question at a time and wait before asking another.
Asking one question at a time helps in group conversations too, because a dialogue between two people in a group, where everyone else is just a bystander, can feel exclusionary to those not participating.
5. Deciding Which Questions To Ask — And Which To Avoid
In my opinion, the old axiom to stay away from sex, money and politics can lead to cautious, superficial conversations. Rather, the key is to discern when and where to raise delicate topics.
During a Himalayan trek in the early ‘80s, my husband Barry and I had a deeply meaningful conversation with some German trekkers about a politically sensitive subject. They told us that in that era in Germany, certain words were never used — such as the word “exterminate,” not even when referring to insects. We were able to engage in that fascinating conversation because our discussion was based on events so long enough ago that the German trekkers didn’t feel threatened.
Unlike, unfortunately, 15 years later, when we visited Trabzon — a city in eastern Turkey — where we gave a talk about U.S. culture at a local English school. The director, a friendly, cheerful guy, took us out afterwards for a light meal. During dinner, I asked him about the 1915 Armenian genocide, considered by many to be the first of the 20th century.
He stared down at his plate and turned quiet. After a long, awkward silence, he looked up and said, “It is not what you think.” I cringed. Clearly, he was not willing to listen to some outsider speak ill of his country.
I learned my lesson. Two weeks later, Barry and I sat on the floor eating dinner Turkish style with a group of Israelis. Knowing we’d only be there that one evening, I chose not to bring up the emotionally-fraught Palestinian issue, instead asking them how they felt about their government, to which they replied honestly and poignantly about their frustrations and worries. The conversation led to compassion, rather than potential division.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before embarking on a sensitive topic:
- What is your intention? Are you genuinely interested in hearing their perspective, or are you secretly hoping they’ll agree with you?
- How much time do you have?
- Would you mind being overheard?
- Intuitively, do you feel it’s OK to take a risk?
- Can you probe gently, as in, “May I ask you something?” and offer a way out if you discern that they’re uncomfortable?
6. Remembering That Listening Isn’t Losing
While growing up, I somehow absorbed the idea that speaking equaled winning. Talking was sexy and powerful, whereas listening was, at best, boring, and more often, conceding or losing. Because no one wants to lose, it took me years to realize that listening is actually the more powerful and less ego-driven part of communication. We don’t give up anything by listening, but in my experience it’s easy to think otherwise, especially when we feel anxious.
7. Seeking Opportunities To Listen
On the Himalayan trek, one evening during dinner, a woman from Quebec mentioned that because she was interested in Nepali cuisine after settling in earlier that afternoon, she had asked our hostess if she could watch her prepare the meal. Absurd as it sounds, it had never occurred to me that I could listen, observe, and learn not only from fellow tourists, but from local hosts.
Forty years later, Barry and I seek listening opportunities everywhere — with taxi drivers, tour guides, and the reception and cleaning staff at hotels.
8. Keeping In Mind Possible Cross-Cultural Differences
Recently, Barry and I were sitting in our van overlooking the Pacific, our side door open, enjoying our morning coffee. A man with a German accent who we had never met suddenly arrived and asked abruptly, “How much did your van cost?”
Not even a “Good morning!” Everyone knows that if you want to ask the price of a large, expensive item, you ask obliquely. No, not everyone knows. A Dutch friend explained that while Americans are viewed as fairly direct, Europeans consider Germans to be more so, and the Dutch even blunter.
Although we were taken aback — especially Barry, who, being British, is even more private about money than I am — we realized the man’s approach was simply an aspect of his culture, and we answered his question politely. Still, if you don’t want to cause offense, it really pays to research cross-cultural communication. I’ve found the Culture Smart guidebooks practical and helpful.
9. Appreciating Silence
Because the U.S. is a highly verbal culture, it can be difficult to understand that silence is very powerful. When we’re willing to refrain from speaking, others may fill the gap and say something unexpected. And sometimes, just by being quiet, we hear things we wouldn’t otherwise hear — like church bells, the call to worship in Arabic countries, rug hawkers, waves crashing, and birds singing. A lovely exercise is to sit somewhere in silence and listen for the furthest sound.
I believe true listening is a selfless, spiritual act, because it requires putting our own agenda aside temporarily, really trying to understand the other person, and meeting them where they are. I’m grateful Fran Peavey put me on a journey that I hope will never end. More than any other activity, taking small steps on a regular basis towards listening better has enriched my connections with other people, no matter where I am.