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True Listening is About Being Vulnerable

“When we’re truly listening we have to anticipate that we might become changed by what we heard.”

So notes acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, founder of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation based in Joyce, Washington. Hempton, who defines real quiet not as an absence of sound but as an absence of noise, recently chatted with public radio’s On Being host Krista Tippett. I particularly appreciated this exchange during the program, The Last Quiet Places:

Hempton: “When we’re truly listening we have to anticipate that we might become changed by what we heard.”

Tippett: “This is such an important point you make as a professional listener. It’s something I know too…that real listening is about being vulnerable. But I don’t know how to explain it. How do you explain that?”

Hempton: “…I highly recommend that if a person wants to increase their ability to understand another person that they start out listening to nature because you’re totally uninvested in the outcome of nature. You can just take it all in, all the expressions. And isn’t it wonderful that when a bird sings we do hear it as music? The bird doesn’t sing for our benefit. So there’s a lot of joy in that listening and when we become better listeners to nature we also become better listeners to each other. So that when another person is speaking with you, you don’t have to search for what you want them to say, you can dare to risk [hearing] what they really are trying to say. And ask them, too, Is this really what you’re saying? and feel your own emotional response as they talk about risky subjects.”

Hempton was not always a good listener, he says, though he had thought himself one. Then, during a cross-country drive, he pulled over for a nap just as a thunderstorm rolled overhead. He found himself simply taking it all in — the storm, the echoes, the crickets. “And it was then I realized I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important, even before I had heard it, and screening out everything that was unimportant, even before I had heard it.” That realization, says Hempton, changed his life.

You can change yours, too. Why not begin by going outside today, alone, and allowing nature to help you listen without preconceived filters, without anticipation, without judgment?  Nature has much to teach us.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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