On Improving as a Listener

[This is a contribution to the book Developing Ears to Hear, edited by Aaron Perry (Emeth Press, 2011). When I was invited to contribute, I had just been interviewed on the subject of honing our listening skills. The essay that follows is based on a transcript of that interview, and the original podcast can be found here: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/frederica/listening_skills]


Don’t listen with your ears alone; use your eyes, as well, to gather clues from the person’s expression, stance, and overall demeanor. The body can reveal the soul. In writing about Eastern Orthodox spirituality, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) said that the body is like a Geiger counter;[i] it can disclose what is going on in the soul. He was making the point that it is not necessary for a monk to continually plumb the psyche, because his own body will disclose his inner spiritual and emotional processes. We can use that insight as well. By paying attention to what the other person’s body communicates as we listen to them, we can discern what is going on inside the heart, soul, and understanding.

The main thing is to pay attention; consciously pay more attention than you usually do. Take note of what the other person is saying nonverbally. Sometimes you gain more insight when you think about it later; you don’t get it all at the time of conversation, but the elements come together later.

While you’re listening, and any time afterward that you ponder the conversation, pray and ask the Lord to give you insight. He understands everyone completely, and knows us better than we know ourselves. I get comfort from St. Paul’s line in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that one day we will be able to understand as completely as God understands us now: “Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” [ii] We have been fully understood, we who hardly understand ourselves. The Lord understands the person you want to listen to, so ask his help.

Also, be sure that you are bearing love toward the person you’re listening to. Make a conscious decision to be hospitable toward them. Your presence is like a living room, and you are inviting them to come in and be comfortable. If you keep this in mind it will feel natural to hold your arms open toward them and signal welcome with your own body language. It is necessary to love the person you are listening to, if you want to hear them accurately. If you are short of love for this particular person, ask God to help you stand within his love for them.

Here’s an exercise you can do to hone your ability to notice and feel what another person is feeling—a simple and very literal exercise, focused on what they are feeling physically.  You might notice, for example, that the other person’s foot is pressed up against the chair leg; imagine feeling that as well, and sense what same pressure would feel like at the same place on your foot. Or be aware that, as she stirs her tea, the spoon must be getting hot; try to replicate that same sense of heat in your fingertips. This was a game I made up as a child, but over the years I think it helped me to develop the ability to pay attention to another person, to take them in with steady attention and empathize. I try to feel what the other person is feeling, in many senses of those words. It helps me listen accurately, and that is the foundation of any help we can give.


As you grasp what the other person is feeling, you can use your body, face, and voice to reflect it back. This will draw them out and strengthen the bond between you.  It is as if you are becoming a concave mirror that receives and then reflects back their presence.

Sometimes this even happens naturally, when we are listening to someone and empathizing with them. You might find that you naturally begin to mirror the expression, gestures, and posture of a person you are listening to, in order to help them have a sense of being in synch. If you are not sure what you’re hearing, try doing that mirroring deliberately (though of course in a subtle and natural way, so as not to distract the person you’re listening to). For example, imagine you’re standing, facing someone you are listening to. If the other person is resting their weight on their left foot and their left hand is on their hip, you might begin to rest your weight on your right foot and put your right hand on your hip.  In terms of posture, you provide a mirror image, and it is inviting; the other person opens up.  One body is “listening” to the other.

In another case, the person may be physically and emotionally closed up, keeping you at a distance. They are likely to show this by folding arms across the chest, or not facing you directly but turning toward the side. These gestures can have limiting effects on you, if they impact you without your noticing it. When you notice these distancing efforts on behalf of the other person, the right thing to do may be to respect it, and leave them alone. But there may be times when you want to at least lay the foundation for more open conversations in the future. In that case, be aware of your own body language. Resist an impulse to mirror their closed gestures. Keep your arms down, or hold them open to the other person (if it is possible to do that in a natural way, for example, if you can lay your arms along the arms of a chair). You may have to keep deliberately reminding yourself to do this, because otherwise you may mirror their closedness automatically.

Using mirroring in order to listen can take place even after a conversation has finished.  For example, once you get home you may keep thinking about the conversation, but have the feeling that there was something you missed. You feel that something more was hinted at, but what it could be lies just beyond your grasp. The reason you feel this way may well be that something in the person’s facial expression (or gestures, or posture) didn’t match the words they were saying.

In a case like that you can attempt to replicate what they were presenting physically. You can think, “Now the mouth was like this”—forming your mouth that way—“and the shoulders were like that”—hunching or drooping your shoulders. If you can do this, sometimes insight flashes in immediately: “So that’s what it was—that was fear” (or anger, or sadness).

At this point, you don’t necessarily know why the fear or other emotion was there, so you haven’t completed understanding them. But you have a clue. You are left with the question, “Why would she be feeling that?” Keep thinking things over, and praying for the person. Keep going back over the mental notes you took during the conversation.


Pay attention to the times when elements of the person’s presentation don’t harmonize. For example, in the tone of voice. You can begin to notice, not only which words are used, but whether they are spoken in a distinctive way. Whenever he comes back to this topic, does he talk very fast, as if trying to get past it quickly? Does he end each sentence with a lift, as if it were a question? Does he grow very somber at this point? Does he say he is happy, but look worried? As you listen, keep aware of whether there is unity between the content of the words and the way that they are expressed. A point at which they diverge is worth thinking about further.

The kind of facial expression called “microexpressions” can also give you clues about what is going on below the surface. Microexpressions are facial expressions that flash across the face in an instant, in as little as a fifteenth of a second. They are involuntary, and disclose an aspect of what the person is actually thinking, no matter what they might be trying to convey. Microexpressions have been studied, in particular, to train policemen to discern when someone is lying.  A project to locate people who have an eagle-eye for truth tested 20,000 people for this gift, and found 50.

Some people appear to have a natural gift for catching microexpressions. Those not born with this talent can improve their ability just by being aware that these flashes exist. As you keep looking at the face of the person talking to you, continue scanning for harmony within the face. If they are having an inner conflict over what they are saying, discontinuities will appear.

An example of discontinuity is the smile: a real smile involves the muscles that surround the eyes, and those are muscles a person can’t control voluntarily. A person can shape the mouth into a smile, but cannot force the corresponding muscles around the eyes. As a result, you can tell a real smile from a fake smile pretty easily, and probably have always been able to tell, unconsciously. You just didn’t know before why it was that some people’s smiles made you feel uneasy.

We see this often in photos of celebrities. As a result of having to interact constantly with strangers, many celebrities get into the habit of exhibiting false smiles—the mouth is curved but the eyes are flat. (Another reason for them to cultivate this false smile is to keep the forehead smooth and avoid wrinkles.)  In some cases, the expression is almost hostile, like a dog showing its teeth. I don’t condemn celebrities for giving false smiles; who could begrudge any strategy used, given the stress of a constantly-exposed life. But when you see these smiles on the cover of magazines in the check-out line, look more carefully, and discern whether you see hostility, coldness, or simple weariness.

Sometimes the discontinuity between facial expression and content is more of a constant state, rather than fleeting microexpressions. I used to go to a doctor who made a lot of jokes.  Eventually it dawned on me that, for all his joking, he never smiled. While at first I was only registering the joking content of his words, I eventually became aware that I felt sort of uneasy when I saw him.  I felt some stress because of the disconnect between what he was saying and what his face communicated. Perhaps someone had told him, “It’s a good idea to joke around to make your patients comfortable,” but there wasn’t any joy in it. Because the surface content was distracting, I didn’t register the disconnect immediately.  Yet, in a case like this, I could listen to the unsettled feeling in my own body, and eventually locate the cause in the difference between the way he looked and what he said. Once I became aware of this was able to understand the situation more accurately, and to show him kindness rather than only amusement.


The signals we send while listening can make it easier for the person speaking to relax and open up. As we nod, smile, offer open body language and a gentle tone of voice, the listener communicates an active interest in the other person’s story.  The dynamics of how youyou’re your voice are in themselves very influential.  A lift in the voice signals interest, and conveys liveliness and alertness.  Imagine for yourself how relaxing it is when you’re telling a story, and your hearer responds with bright eyes, and nods in rhythm with the narrative.  It helps you open up.

In the same way, you can enable someone to speak more freely through the signals you send in body language and tone of voice—perhaps echoing the other’s tone of voice, and then leading it to a different place.  For example, you might notice that, although the person you’re listening to is talking about superficial things, they seem sad or worried underneath. You can try to match their tone of voice, speaking at the same pitch and speed—then bring it down a little, speaking more lowly and slowly. You can say something, pause briefly, then say, “You know, you just seem worried today.”

The role of the listener is like that of a midwife, because the only way people can solve their problems is from the inside. You can’t force someone to have an insight. But you can provide an opportunity. Of course, these techniques must never be used aggressively, in order to dominate or expose the other.  But skilled listening, practiced with love, gentility, and sincere care for the other, meets them where they are.

This sort of unfolding conversation can only proceed one step at a time. You can’t be in a hurry to shove the conversation to deeper waters. Just take it down one step: talk more slowly, allowing more space in the conversation; add more “ums” and “ahs.”  Then take it down another step and then another, as the conversation rolls on from there.  This type of skilled, reflective, and loving listening will allow some people to open up more than they expected, becoming aware of underlying issues that would otherwise have remained hidden.

A bit of advice I heard long ago, which has remained very useful, is “Don’t ask questions.” For example, if a man is talking about a dangerous moment, if you ask, “Did you feel frightened?”, he will be tempted to respond “No!” He might not want to see himself as fearful, even though he truly was. With that one question, you just ended the conversation!

Instead, you could say, “You felt frightened,” and, hopefully, they will just keep on rolling: “Yeah, and then…” Or you could say “How frightening!” Anything that identifies the emotion, phrased as a statement rather than a question. If it might be a sensitive topic, you could make it a statement about yourself: “If that was me, I would have been so scared right then.” The listener can pick this up and keep going: “Yeah, I was!”

Making a statement, rather than asking a question, facilitates communication in a way similar to jiu-jitsu: you use the momentum of the conversation to take it to the next place. But if you ask a question, the person speaking has to stop and stand outside themselves, and try to see themselves objectively; if they don’t like what they see, they may begin resisting it. The conversation begins to become less honest.

It’s useful to roll the conversation forward with simple, murmured responses like “Uh-huh” and “Yes,” which don’t interrupt the flow. But if you use them too much, they can also sound like boredom or, worse, like you’re using a listening technique.  Intersperse these quiet responses with statements that reflect what the person has said. Use language that the speaker would recognize as accurate, and avoid slipping in a personal opinion, if it is something they would resist. At this point you’re still taking in the situation, and want to help them go on talking with freedom.

In your responses, pick up and re-use any words that seem to carry particular importance to the speaker.  Or you can offer a new word, and see whether they employ it as they go forward. Sometimes people are very grateful for your supplying a term that fits; they may be having trouble coming up with just the right word, and if you can supply it, it’s a big help.

When you offer something and they take it up and repeat it, you and the other have communicated.  This propels the conversation forward in a direction faithful to the speaker’s original trajectory.

You may have a hunch about something to say, but feel like holding it back in case you’re wrong.  But, actually, it doesn’t matter if your guess is wrong. If you say, “You must have been frustrated,” and they respond, “No, I wouldn’t say frustrated, it was more like…,” the other will fill in the blank with their own term. Guessing wrong can still be helpful, because in considering in the speaker can rule out a possibility, and that helps them focus more accurately on what the right term would be. The speaker continues to remain the one setting the pace for the conversation.

So take care about asking questions. You might inadvertently take over the direction of the conversation, by supplying a new direction that it should go. Though questions are the most obvious and literal way to invite a person to open up, they often disrupt the flow of conversation, by forcing the other to step out of their thought stream and instead turn toward self examination.  Statements, however, facilitate the flow of conversation.  If you slide your observation into the stream as a statement, the other will not have to externalize and lose their train of thought, and instead can continue embodying their thoughts and feelings. Using words and phrases can lay more tracks for the conversation, and thereby allow the other to remain in control, while facilitating the direction the listener is discerning.


When listening in a group context there are more factors to keep in mind. One task for the person who is trying to facilitate group decision-making is to prevent any one group member from usurping leadership and imposing his or her decision.  If one member of the group is overconfident and overly certain of what should happen, she might—intentionally or not—steamroll other people, and their own good ideas will go unheard. This may be a person who has a dominating personality to start with, while others in the group are more flexible, or simply less invested in the outcome. Group dynamics can be fluid and volatile. Just the presence of a person with a strong opinion can be enough to make other members of the group think, “Well, our work is done. I’ll just agree with her and everything will be fine.”  Keeping the topic open, and postponing arrival at a decision until the group feels the right solution has been found, is essential.

Group facilitators must also concretize verbalizations in such a way that strength of voice or opinion does not increase the weight of an idea. A whiteboard or chalkboard can be helpful to keep track of different recommendations and ideas, equalizing them. Any idea on the board is the equal of any other, regardless of who originated it, whether a soft-spoken person or a verbal steamroller. When the list of solutions is written down for all to read and reread, everyone in the group can keep sifting them, and nothing will be forgotten because it was expressed less forcefully.

Group facilitation and listening also requires continually inviting the silent members to put forth their ideas. It is best, therefore, if group facilitators are not invested in any particular solution and if they are not commissioned to bring about a particular point of view. The group facilitator, as listener, provides an audience for anyone who may see drawbacks or potential problems in what a strong personality has recommended. Group facilitators as listeners can continue to draw attention to the fact that there could be other solutions, and embody an invitation for members to suggest these alternatives.

When I was assisting with the Common Ground Network, trying to help pro-choice and pro-life people learn to dialogue with one another, we learned that instead of getting people to talk about their opinions, we should get them to talk about their experiences. The group would be gathered in a circle, and the pro-life person might go first and say, “This is what happened to me, this is the experience I had that brought me to my position,” rather than “This is what I think about what is right and wrong, and this is my reasoning.” Then the person on the other side would reflect it back, saying, “You had this experience and you drew these conclusions.” The idea was for them to mirror the other respectfully, so that they could say, “Yes, that is accurate; you understood me.”  It is very liberating to be understood.  Thus, the group did not seek agreement. Our basic assumption was that we were not going to come to agreement, and so trying to persuade the other was against the ground rules. Our goal was not to agree, but to clear up misunderstandings and false assumptions. Perhaps you could say the goal was sincere disagreement.



Do listeners offer suggestions?  Remember that a listener is not (usually) called on to meddle.  Yet if you become a good listener you can be used for healing and clarifying in people’s lives. The key is to know how you are called to do such work in any given conversation.

In my case, I can hardly help but offer suggestions; I do it all the time, usually after a period of listening, and this might be a flaw. After listening and getting a sense of what is going on, if I see a way forward, I always tell it to the person I’m listening to. Of course, that can be a place where I can begin to lose the connection with the other: he might not be ready to listen to any solutions yet, and may still need time to ventilate.  The premature offer of resolutions and recommendations can risk losing connection with the other.

When thinking about whether to give advice, the listener must also take into consideration whether there are real or perceived inequalities between the listener and the other.  This can include conversations between men and women, bosses and employees, professionals and laborers, young and old, and other relationships in which inequality may be felt. If such is the case, be careful to leave your advice as a suggestion that they may consider, rather than an order. (Unless, of course, your authority in the situation is appropriate, and you do intend to direct them to take this course.)

In general, I think it is good to state, after a time of listening, “Well, it seems to me the best thing to do is this,” or “Have you tried that?”  The other may respond to your suggestion a number of ways. Some will immediately reject it and point out its flaws. Some people, in fact, cling insistently to “That won’t work” no matter what you say, and conversation hits a deadlock; go back to active listening to see if there is an open spot at any point in the person’s thinking. On the other hand, some people quickly accept the suggestion and say something like, “Wow, I never thought of that; that would probably work.” This is very gratifying, of course. And sometimes the other may even seem to ignore the suggestion and gloss over it.  You can give your advice, but have no control over how others receive it. Listeners must simply be at peace with this.

The key in offering suggestions and advice is to regard them as a new step in the conversation, rather than its conclusion. Don’t listen with the aim of figuring out what the solution is, so you can fix it and end the conversation. Your advice must not be an “equal but opposite reaction” to the other’s concerns, designed to put an end to the conversation, but rather a catalyst that moves it forward.

Sometimes the listener himself is blocked, and you notice that he is repeating himself. It seems like they are riding around a circular verbal train track: a series of four or five points in their mind simply loop together, without resolution, and keep going round and round.  This may be evidence of ambivalence about a situation. They may not see clearly which path to choose.  Rather than offering suggestions in such a case, focus on helping the other think it through. Possibly what needs to emerge is something they don’t yet recognize, and so they go on repeating what they do know.  They may be stymied by the impression that all the factors in a situation bear equal weight. You may be able to help them by pointing out that some factors are not as important as others, or that among outcomes some are more likely than others. This can loosen a log jam.

Some cases involve a persistent impediment, to the point of immobilizing conversation. Perhaps the other is afraid; perhaps they were hurt.  In these cases, quietly waiting is not enough. The listener must help the other dig a little deeper into the block and bring it to the surface.  Focus on the emotion that is lurking below the surface.  Then the other can talk about their emotion, which perhaps is something they can verbalize fully, thereby gaining momentum.

Christian traditions involving guidance in one’s prayer life and advice in decisions from spiritual fathers reveal the benefit of such proactive listening.  Sometimes a false idea—a logismos in the Orthodox faith—can control and dictate the other’s actions without their knowing it. An insightful elder or spiritual father may be able to expose it to the light, and break its power with a single statement.  A single sentence can break some ancient bonds. The other can suddenly see, “Oh—I never needed to worry about that.”  Sometimes it takes another person to break through a tangle of confusion. Listening is not a passive or noncommittal; you must always be actively engaged with the other, in love. And there are times when the listener must step forward and say bluntly, “I’m going to tell you honestly what it looks like to me.” Pray and discern so you do the right thing at the right time.


1. Be patient.   Listening doesn’t happen all at once.  Sometimes more than one conversation is needed to listen well.  It might take weeks or months of listening to get things all cleared out. There is a process of helping people work through ideas, potential blocks, and (potentially distracting) excitements.  I know that, when I perceive that there’s a problem, I want to get the problem solved, but I have to keep that impulse in check. It’s hard work not to rush the other person.  That would be like trying to rush a hardboiled egg: while you may (in your opinion) know what the hardboiled egg ought to look like, you can’t do the boiling for it, or rush it.  It may take month after month for the other to work towards a solution.  Thus, you need to have as your goal not fixing the problem, but enabling the process that emerges with time.  It is like enabling a rose to bloom. You can’t rush that; you have to let it do that on its own schedule.  Patience is hard work, but it is necessary in listening.

2. Develop a listening character.  It’s hard to do listen effectively if you don’t, to some extent, love the other person. Patience with the other is the fruit of love. It’s more than just a technique. You have to see the complexity and beauty of another human being, and respect that, without trying to force it in one area or another.  I sometimes think that, as fascinating as the best novels can be, every person you meet is a novel God is writing, the best novels of all. So the most important thing about listening is love for the other, because God is love, and the presence of God is love.  This means that the listener’s presence can communicate the presence of God.  This is not a technique; ths is the love God has for the other, and it can empower you to love with his own love. God’s love for the other gives you patience, and the gift of listening in the midst of struggle.  The listener is free to dwell in this loving presence of God, rather than solving a problem, or offering correct thoughts, opinions, and advice. Listening means allowing the Lord to be present, loving the other person as he knows best.

3. Allow the other to solve the problem.  Someone has said that no one hears anything except what comes out of their own mouth. To listen means to help someone come to the point that the solution comes rising up out of their own heart and mind. Even if the solution is something that you could have told them at the first session, listening helps the other get to the point where they can enunciate it themselves. Then the truth of that outcome will be apparent to them because it will have grown organically, out of their own experience and from within their own history.

4.  Keep the other in focus.  A common pitfall for well-intentioned listeners is turning the spotlight toward themselves. The temptation is to usurp the conversation by telling one’s own story.  Say someone is worried about their mother’s illness. The listener might be tempted to show sympathy by saying, “Oh, my mother was sick, too, and how I felt was this.”

It seems like that should work, in theory, because you’re being sincere and showing that you understand. But in reality, it has the opposite effect: instead of listening, you have dragged the spotlight over to yourself. The other has to stop talking about her burden, and stop following the track of her own thoughts, and instead focus on you. So keep in mind that, no matter what has happened in your past, it is never exactly the same as what’s happening to the other now. The other has a different personality, a different history, and different spiritual experience. They will draw on different resources. Each situation truly is unique, so let people be truly unique, especially if in the midst of suffering or sadness.  Let the other, for the space of this conversation, be the only person in the world who knows what their own circumstance is like.

In conclusion, I’d like to stress what a gift good listening can be. Most people don’t get enough listening; they go around hungry for understanding. And I think people today are lonelier than ever. All our freedom from other people’s meddling or opinion also means that we don’t have the close, supportive relationships we used to have. If you can be a good listener you can bless others a great deal. It’s a way to serve God by loving his people.

[i] Body is like a Geiger counter  Rt Rev Anthony Bloom, Asceticism: Somatopsychic Techniques in Greek OrthodoxChristianity, Guild Lecture 95 (London: The Guild of Pastoral Psychology, 1957). This treatise is not available for sale or on posted the internet. It is quoted in Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer, Brewster, MA:Paraclete Press, 2009.

[ii] 1 Cor. 13:12

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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