Tuning Into Others: How to Hear What's Not Being Said

Sep 22, 2023

"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention."
- Rachel Naomi Remen

Beyond Words

So much of human communication occurs through unspoken means. The tone conveying barely hidden hurt. The body angled away in distrust. The eyes glancing downward in uncertainty. The sigh escaping clenched jaws.

Yet in conversation, we often focus solely on the verbal content, missing the nonverbal cues signaling what’s left unsaid. We hear the lyrics but not the melody that gives them meaning. By developing our capacity for listening beyond words, we can tune into the complete song of each person’s essence.

The vibration of truth hums just below the surface of speech. Can we quiet our interior noise to discern the frequencies? Can we receive the totality of a message with openness instead of interference? Such holistic listening asks us to hear not only with our ears, but with empathy.

Listening as Co-feeling

Empathetic listening involves emotionally joining the inner landscape of the speaker. We shift from detached spectator to engaged participant lighting up the same neural pathways they experience.

In body-focused psychotherapy, therapists use the skill of “kinesthetic empathy” to mirror patients’ somatic states, providing a sense of deep rapport. Similarly, we can reflect emotions conveyed through vocal tones and subtle movements.

As philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “Feelings one might have toward a rock, toward an animal, toward a work of art, has nothing to do with partnership.” When we offer true empathetic listening, we forge authentic human partnership, if only for a moment.

Curiosity Over Certainty

However, empathetic listening requires approaching conversations with openness, not preconceived certainties. If we think we already know the full story and how we’ll respond, we’ll miss the uniqueness each person offers.

By asking gently curious questions instead of making assumptions, we gather the pieces needed to assemble the puzzle of a life before us. We understand nothing perfectly at first glance. Allow surprise, contradiction, mystery.

Listen without attachment to being right. No matter how well you know someone, unprecedented revelations await. The day we stop learning in wonder from anyone is they day we forfeit the possibility of relationships without limit.

Presence Over Planning

Of course, unlocking our natural capacity for undivided presence takes practice. The untamed mind instinctually wanders. When someone speaks, we often formulate our own reply simultaneously, not hearing them completely.

Good listening requires focusing fully on the speaker, suspending inner noise. Without multitasking or meandering thoughts, we journey deep into their world. If we get distracted, gently return attention to their words.

Thoughts will invariably hook us. But by relinquishing the need to react in real time, we make space to simply take in without inner comment. We can abide in the grace between stimulus and response. Here lives the realm of true communion.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Compassion Over Critique

Similarly, well-meaning advice or criticisms frequently sabotage empathetic listening. When we offer solutions or judgments instead of presence, speakers feel dismissed, not heard.

The goal is to listen in order to understand first and foremost. Getting defensive or critical erects walls when our aim should be extending care. Trust that any needed feedback will arise naturally once both parties feel safe and receptive.

Of course, listening compassionately doesn’t equate to blanket endorsement. We can acknowledge troublesome dynamics or inconsistencies diplomatically, oriented toward positive growth. But reproach closes conduits that compassion keeps open.

The Space Between People

At its heart, good listening is about rediscovering the sacred space between two souls - the interface where understanding dwells. Inhabiting this realm together requires presence free from the normal static of egos jostling, emotions flaring.

Here we catch glimpses of our shared humanity. We remember: before thoughts divide, reality unites us. Before identities separate, existence bonds us. In the quietude beyond words, souls recognize one another.

Of course, misunderstandings inevitably arise. Feelings get hurt, intentions misconstrued. Yet if we shelter even a shred of faith in the goodness waiting quietly beneath each interaction, connection cannot stay severed for long.

Listening as Co-Creation

At its highest potential, engaged listening becomes an act of co-creation. When two partners attune deeply to the space between, they begin to sculpt something emergent that holds traces of both yet belongs to neither alone.

In the depth of dialogue, insights are birthed not from either party individually but from the fertile, dynamic space they share. There is a pregnancy of discovery, a quickening of wisdom that outgrows old containment.

The act of listening-into-being calls us beyond habit and assumption. It demands surrender - of expectations, of judgments, of false certainty. In return, it midwifes truth otherwise unknowable. The listener does not mine knowledge but receives the gift unexpectedly.

The Journey Towards Wholeheartedness

Of course, attaining mastery in the art of listening requires commitment to an endless path. We spend years trapped in inner noise until we recognize its deafening din. Even once on the journey towards presence, the mind's momentum pulls us off course again and again.

Yet the effort shapes us as souls. As my dear teacher heard me say once, "The heart knows nothing of perfection, only of persistence." Though we stumble, we rise again. Our steps gradually gather into momentum until presence comes unbidden.

I remember the first time presence took me unexpectedly. I sat across from a crying friend without reaction. Suddenly, the need to analyze or fix simply fell away. An abiding calm cradled the space between us. I learned more of life in those wordless minutes than in years of effort.

Such moments return to orient us when we lose our way. They remind us that all true listening occurs within - to the still, small voice beneath the clamor. With patience and care, anyone may yet kindle that inner flame into a beacon bright enough to guide passage even through the darkest straits.


In the end, listening remains one of the most generous gifts we can offer fellow sojourners. Those who master the art of presence cherish words not for their own sake, but for their power to reverently uncover the soul speaking them, like dust tenderly brushed from a relic to reveal its contours.

Truly engaged listening reweaves the fraying social fabric of our age. When we no longer reflexively turn from discomfort or difference, but lean in with care, we build bridges wherever divides threaten rupture.

So speak your truth, friends, and someone will hear it. Speak it softly or shout, shakily or boldly, and someone will embrace it with theirs. In listening, two solitudes merge into companionship. And there the healing of the world quietly begins.

 Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash  

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