My Rules: 9. Always Listen Actively

“Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” – Alan Alda

“If for a moment you are inclined to regard these taluses as mere draggled, chaotic dumps, climb to the top of one of them, and run down without any haggling, puttering hesitation, boldly jumping from boulder to boulder with even speed. You will then find your feet playing a tune, and quickly discover the music and poetry of these magnificent rock piles — a fine lesson; and all Nature’s wildness tells the same story — the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort — each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.” – John Muir

This rule might seem obvious, but the challenge would be to take it deeper. Actively listen not only to others in conversation, but to the animals and plants in nature. To the rocks and streams. To the wind and rain, and the sun and the stars. To the spiritual centers of the universe and God. Listening actively is not shutting up, but rather partaking in deep, heartfelt conversation. Responding and seeking to understand and empathize.

This is a continuation of my series about My Rules.

A lot of people have said a lot about active listening skills. I’m convinced that we could all benefit from continuing to study all of these various different ideas. It is not a skill that is simply learned once and used from then on. It is learned continuously, practiced continuously, and never reaches a level of mastery that cannot be improved upon.

IMG_3267I have been through some technical training on this matter myself, as I studied for becoming a substance abuse counselor. From that training, I have a plethora of things I could say about actively listening to another person, and how to do it. It is far outside of the scope of one blog post to delve into the topic, but I’ll give some bullet points of interest:

  • The obvious: just listen. Shut up, momentarily, and listen. Take in the words that are being said to you, and give them a home in your mind. You can disagree; you can find the words terrible, disgusting, whatever bad word you want. But hear them, and seek to understand them.
  • Listen and pay attention to the words not stated. Body language can say a lot. It is a difficult skill to learn, to truly be able to read body language. It can give insight into the words someone is saying, regardless of any other factor.
  • Respond. Be engaged. While I said “Shut up and listen” above, active listening requires a response. Not just any response. Simple facial expressions, simple responses that signify you are listening, and asking questions to further the conversation are all great, and important parts of actively listening. So is using the persons’ own words in your responses. If someone says that they’re “pissed off”, use “pissed off”, not “angry” when referring to those feelings. Doing such can be amazingly difficult for how easy of a concept it seems like, but improves your own listening amazingly so. It also helps you to truly understand what the person is saying.
  • Empathize. Everyone can empathize with everyone, entirely. You may not have had the same experiences as another person, but you have felt the emotions they are feeling. Everyone has. You may not have experienced why someone is angry, but you have experienced anger. You may not have experienced why someone is sad, but you have experienced sadness. Empathizing in this regard is an amazingly important part of actively listening.
  • Love. Unconditionally. Perhaps the only way you can truly love unconditionally is to have been first loved unconditionally by another. I would argue that it is utterly impossible to fully engage in active listening without this skill, however. It doesn’t mean approval: love and disapproval can be complementary, in fact. So can hate and approval. That argument has been used in some terrible, disgusting matters throughout time, but I do think there is a lot truth in there, once you wade through the bullshit surrounding its use.
  • Allow yourself to be changed. Being so stubborn that you won’t allow another person’s words to have a changing effect on you entirely rules out active listening. Practicing truly deep active listening means allowing the words you are hearing to affect you, to change you. Maybe in the way they are intended, maybe in some other way altogether. Simply allow the opportunity.


Although the points above are only a very brief overview, and many other things could be said about active listening, I really think that those are some of the most important. If you can master those, there’s a good chance that you’re on your way to becoming a wonderful active listener. Although I will finish those off with one personal belief: it is impossible to truly “master” those pieces: you can always grow stronger in those skills!

Mono Lake

I started this whole post talking about how this isn’t just about listening to people, though. I even included a wonderful quote from John Muir about “the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart”.

All of nature, everything. It is constantly speaking to us. The rocks have stories to tell, often centuries–even milleniums–old, and the air has a history of where the wind has taken it. The trees tell stories of wonderful journeys through time and space. The rain and the sunshine. The moon and the stars. God and the spirits of this world in which we live. They all have an amazing amount to say.

So, the challenge is to take those active listening skills and apply them beyond just your neighbor. Apply them to listening to nature and your surroundings. Listen actively to God and the universe. Actively listen to yourself.


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