We all love the sound of our own voices. Have you ever noticed how, in many conversations, two people are just talking at one another in a futile battle for verbal supremacy? There’s little absorption, reciprocation or understanding, merely biding one’s time, anticipating the perfect moment to speak about oneself. No lasting, meaningful relationship can work this way. The act of shutting up, looking at someone’s face — not at your mobile device or computer — and listening to them is pivotal to human connection. Listening makes people feel valued and, more importantly, allows them to be vulnerable.
It’s impossible to read minds, but that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret signs, subtle hints that something painful or troubling is hiding behind a weak smile or a forced laugh. Being a good friend, significant other, sibling, parent or even a benevolent stranger means knowing when to ask and how to listen. Some people are just looking for an opening; their pain is struggling to be known. The act of listening creates that opening. Granted, the average conversation between friends is not this intense, but listening, even casually, cultivates trust and a sense of worth.
My experience varies drastically. A few of my best friends don’t hesitate to talk about anything; we become each others’ therapists, listening intently, offering spare, pointed comments, leading each other through wormholes of thought and discovering things about ourselves we were barely conscious of. Others are a bit harder to crack, with seemingly impenetrable safes around their minds. I may have no idea what’s in that safe, but I know there’s a special place in it for my secrets and me. Their compassion and capacity for listening is unparalleled. I’m grateful for them.
Relationships must be founded on the ability to listen because that is what allows people to be vulnerable. Although I previously dedicated an entire column to why vulnerability is so important, I should explain it again briefly: We must be able to open ourselves emotionally to others because it is the source of human connection and happiness. If no one is listening, who are we opening ourselves up to? People need to be seen and heard, at least by those they care about. When people ignore each other, they undermine the entire basis of vulnerability. When vulnerability loses its effect, we stop caring about others and ourselves.
It isn’t always easy — just because you love someone doesn’t mean you feel like listening to every word that comes out of his or her mouth. That’s only human. All people fall prey to, as Marla Singer from Fight Club put it, “waiting for their turn to speak.” I certainly do. But tuning people out is an easy habit to acquire, and when you do it, you’re being dishonest. If you don’t want to listen at the exact moment your friends want to talk, that’s okay. Ask if they can talk another time when you’re more open to listening. It’s better they know you respect them enough not to lie to them. They will appreciate you all the more for it.
You gain immeasurably by being a good listener. You learn that there’s nothing most people want more than a confidant — someone to share part of themselves with — especially now, as students, with each of us still navigating the uncharted path of early adulthood. This should be a time of discovery for us all; we need each other in order to make that happen. Knowing that others are listening can relieve you of immense burdens, and help you not just survive this life, but live it to the fullest. We all need a listener, but first we need to listen.
Email Matt Camarda at firstname.lastname@example.org.