The Lost Art of Listening


“A listening ear is a priceless gift.” Rachel Macy Stafford
Hands Free Life – 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better and Loving More

I’ve done a lot of good things in my life (there, I said it!) and I continue to do them, but I also have my share of regrets. Near the top of that list (okay, it’s actually at the top!) is that the art of listening and the importance of being heard are two concepts that came to me very late in the game. Given how critical both of those skills are to what it means to be fully human, you’d think they’d either come naturally or that educators would have long since found a way to incorporate them into school curricula, beginning in kindergarten – but they don’t and they haven’t. Instead, like too many things of their kind, we’re more or less left to figure them out on our own and, generally speaking, that’s never a good thing! That’s especially true when it comes to listening.

Why is that? I think there are at least 5 reasons.

For starters, listening requires a quiet space and that we be fully present. In today’s world, both of those commodities are extremely hard to come by. Don’t believe me? Pause for just a moment and consider how much quiet time you’ve had in the last 24 hours. If you’re like most it will be a very small fraction. Smaller still will be the amount of time you’ve spent free of the distractions that are so much a part of our modern everyday lives (e.g., smartphones, computers, TVs, tablets, etc.). It’s not that we can’t make the time and space or fully detach – we can do both. It’s just that with all that occupies our time (i.e., work, family, social commitments, activities, etc.) making it and doing it require conscious effort and commitment. But know this: You can’t listen, nor can someone truly feel heard without doing both.

Second, listening requires that you shut up and open up. At the risk of being blunt and stating the obvious (which, believe it or not, to many, including myself at one time, is not “obvious” at all!), you can’t expect to be a quality listener if your mouth is open. So shut it and open your heart instead – wide. In fact, make a point of telling the person who’s speaking what you’re doing and why you’re doing it: “I’m closing my mouth now – and opening my heart. I’m ready to hear what you have to say.” Some of the most intimate conversations I’ve ever had have been ones where both parties showed up and simply allowed their hearts to talk to each other – few words, lots of tears, some knowing silence and a lingering, meaningful embrace (or two!).

Third, listening requires that you pre-dispose your ears (and your heart) to empathy, rather than judgment. This was always a stumbling block for me and I know I’m not alone. But, the fact is: It’s impossible to listen with a judgmental heart, because another’s truth will never find its way across the moat of guilt and shame that protects it. In fact, truth be told, another will never feel safe to even attempt to speak their truth, knowing there is a likelihood they will be judged first and heard, if at all, second. What’s the key to this piece? Accepting rather than just paying lip service to the fact that someone else’s perceptions, experiences, feelings, opinions, etc. are just as real and just as entitled to validation as our own. Why that was so hard for me to figure out for so long will forever be a mystery to me.

Fourth, listening requires that you set aside your desire to “fix” the speaker. Another speed bump on yours truly’s road to becoming a better listener. You see, I always fancied myself as one of the great fixers of all time, especially where my children were concerned. So, it was a very small, albeit self-absorbed step for me to assume that anytime they (or anyone else for that matter!) came to me with an issue, a fear, a dilemma or a problem they did it with an eye towards my fixing it. Often times, they hadn’t even finished talking before I was busy laying out “The Solution”. It was only later that I realized that all they ever really wanted was a listening ear and to know that they’d been heard – by a word of acknowledgement, the shedding of a tear, an expression of empathy, some combination of the three or simply a warm embrace.

Fifth (and finally) listening demands that we refrain from taking others’ words personally, from responding to them as a child or teenager would when caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing (e.g., with incredulity and anger, by marshaling evidence designed to deflect what we construe as blame, by slamming things and storming out of the room, etc.) and, instead, accept them for what they are and all they were ever intended to be: A sacred glimpse into another’s soul and its truth. That’s not to say there aren’t times when the words we hear will hurt – there will be and they will. But, even those words have a need, indeed a right to be spoken and to be heard, because the alternative is for them to be swallowed and to take their truth with them. The bottom line: Shame and guilt have no place in the listening equation.

Thankfully, I’m a much better listener today, due, in large part, to a lot of people who have taught me not only the importance of it, but some of the skills necessary to develop it into an art form. The good news is: You can acquire them too and, with them, the key to more thoughtful, more intimate, more heartfelt and more life-affirming conversations not only with those you love (e.g., your children, spouse, parents, partner, those you’re charged with ministering to, colleagues, friends, siblings, etc.) but with others you’re likely to meet on your life’s journey who are in desperate need of being heard and have never been given the gift of an ear and a heart truly committed to listening.

It’s So Much More Than A Photograph


All of us have one – a favorite photograph.

An image of us or of a loved one (or both) that, no matter how often we look at it brings a smile to our face or prompts tears of joy to well up in our eyes. A moment – frozen in time – when life seemed to make perfect sense, when the pieces of the puzzle more neatly fit together, when our minds and our lives were less cluttered, when we felt free and unashamed to be silly, to just be our unadorned selves, to express ourselves – to speak and share our truth.

Maybe yours is a moment of PEACE – of you (or a loved one): curled up in a blanket in front of a fireplace, with a favorite book in hand, on a cold winter’s night; walking along the shoreline of the beach with the warm summer surf lapping over your sandy bare feet; asleep on the floor with a four-legged best friend and protector snuggled up nearby; at a quiet candle-lit dinner for two; or rocking a child (or grandchild) to sleep in the soft glow of a nursery night light.

Maybe it’s a moment of CONNECTION – of you (or a loved one): in the warm embrace of a parent, friend, lover or sibling, or holding a newborn for the first time; at a gathering of friends or a reunion of family; on the receiving end of a proposal or a first kiss; lost in a father/daughter wedding dance; or simply holding the hand of a loved one as they face the fear of the first day at a new school, of surgery or test results or on the doorstep of death.

Maybe it’s a moment of ACCOMPLISHMENT – of you (or a loved one): taking a first step; crossing the finish line of a race you almost didn’t enter and weren’t sure you could run; graduating from high school, college, law, graduate, nursing or medical school; being recognized by colleagues at work, for your selfless giving or for your musical, theatrical, artistic or literary talents; or reaching a milestone in a battle with a life-threatening illness or addiction.

Maybe it’s a moment of ANTICIPATION – of you (or a loved one): bounding down the stairs on Christmas morning; tearing away the wrapping paper and catching a first glimpse of a special gift; seeing an old friend as they first step off an airplane after too many years apart; waiting by the window for that special someone to pull into the driveway at the end of a long day; or uncovering your eyes at a surprise party you never saw coming.

Maybe it’s a moment of PLAYFULNESS – of you (or a loved one): pretending mom’s pots and pans were a snare drum set; on a slide, the hanging rings or a swing at a favorite childhood park; playing “dress up” with a neighborhood friend; covered with flour or bathtub bubbles from head to toe after an afternoon of baking or during an evening bath; or on a horse, sliding into home plate, in mid-serve, on a stage, at the keyboard or singing karaoke.

Whatever the moment, its power is real.

In seemingly impenetrable darkness it is a sliver of light.

In the quicksand of despair it is a lifeline of hope.

In the stormy seas of self-doubt it is a lighthouse of love.

In the midst of chaos it is comfort.

Most importantly, contrary to what our Inner Critic would have us believe and however dire they may appear, it serves as irrefutable evidence that our present circumstances are not the way our life has always been, nor are they how it is likely to be going forward.

A few weeks ago, I received a note from a young woman I’d been corresponding with for several months. She had little in the way of a support network and had been battling her demons for some time. It was a particularly dark and difficult day. “I’m tired of the fight,” she said, “really tired – of everything. I want to give up.” Had there not been 2,000 miles between us, I gladly would have dropped everything I was doing and rushed to her side to hold her heart in my arms and reaffirm its worthiness. Instead, I texted her back: “Do you have a favorite photograph?” I asked, “an image of you taken at a simpler time, when you were happy, healthy and carefree that you’re especially fond of?” “Yes,” she replied without hesitation.

“Then please put down the phone,” I said. “Find it and place it in a prominent spot in your home or apartment – on a mirror, the nightstand near your bed, the refrigerator – somewhere where you’ll be sure to see it several times a day.” “Why?” she asked.  “Because in my heart I know that the you in that photograph hasn’t gone anywhere! She’s the real you and she’s just waiting for you to find your way back to her – to rediscover her.” “It’s just so hard,” she responded. “I know it’s hard,” I readily acknowledged. “It’s likely the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But, I also know the rewards are worth the effort. That girl in the photograph is counting on you to find her and set her heart free. Make that your life’s inspiration. A sort of real life game of hide and seek! Ready or not . . .”

The Eyes Have It (Or They Don’t)!


“What every child wants to know is, ‘do your eyes light up when I walk in the room?’” Toni Morrison & Glennon Doyle Melton

I’ve known I’m “wired” a little differently than most for a long time, but that doesn’t stop me from being constantly reminded of that fact – sometimes in the subtlest of ways. Several months ago, for example, I and a few hundred other lawyers from around the country gathered for a client conference in Los Angeles. As conferences go, it was impressive: well-organized and graced with talented speakers, who delivered considerable substance. My lasting memory of the event, however, came in the form of a car commercial that was being broadcast as filler material on two ginormous meeting hall video screens, which I happened upon only because I had returned early from one of the breaks. The commercial was narrated by a young woman who had just “inherited” the family car and was driving it away from home en route to college. No sooner had she cleared the end of the driveway, than the memories of a life spent growing up in and around that car began pouring out – the fondest of which, as it turns out, was the fact that when she was a little girl her car seat was perfectly positioned in a place that allowed her to clearly see the rear view mirror. Why? Because it meant she could see her dad and “he smiled with his eyes.”

Admittedly, it’s a beautiful image but, truth be told, not one that is likely to cause tears to well up in the eyes of most seasoned trial lawyers! In fact, I feel fairly confident in saying that if my 200 – 300 colleagues had been in the room with me at the time (which, fortunately, they weren’t!) not a single one of them would have even watched the commercial, let alone been struck by the power of that phrase the way I was. Why did it affect me as profoundly as it did? Maybe it was because, despite racking my brain, I was unable to find a similar “smile” in the long-since-shuttered eyes of my own dad (or mom) among the thousands of images of them that make up the landscape of my life ( To the contrary, I quickly realized that, unlike the fortunate young girl in the commercial, the parental eyes of my childhood were too often impatient, tired, blood shot, empty or filled with disappointment, loneliness, pain, discouragement and heartache. Maybe my tears were borne of the countless hours I’ve spent sifting through (and struggling to understand) the distorted images of self that hundreds of pairs of otherwise beautiful eyes unknowingly, but hurtfully and repeatedly present to those who are unwilling or unable to see their truth. Or maybe my tears simply flowed from envy – they certainly had done that a time or two before (

However, this much I know for sure: We grossly underestimate and under appreciate the importance and the power of our eyes. They are, after all, the lenses through which we see ourselves and, as importantly, the mirrors in which others, especially those we love, search for the truth about themselves ( We would all do well to remember that, because while we may not always be able to control the images we see, we most certainly can influence the way we “process” those images and reflect them back to ourselves and to the world around us. I suggest we use them wisely (e.g., to find the good in things and in others whenever possible, to express compassion, empathy and acceptance always, to cry when the circumstances warrant tears and sparkle when they inspire a smile). Above all else, I hope that we will “train” our eyes to see us and those we love with the gentleness and kindness that both deserve. I’m still not sure why that simple commercial affected me the way it did, but I’m certain that my life will have been properly lived if, in the end, just one person will say: “The thing I remember most about Don is that he smiled with his eyes!”

(Photo by Steve Johnson)

A Man, A Mirror And What Matters


There are lots of reasons why I’ve never spent very much time staring at myself in the mirror. For starters, I have a really BIG HEAD. I’m not talking about big in an egocentric, swollen kind of way. I’m talking about geometrically disproportionate-to-the-rest-of-my-body big. I’m talking about make-a-child-party-hat-look-like-the-size-of-a-snow-cone-cup-on-a-basketball big. I’m talking about don’t-bother-trying-to- buy-me-a-hat-because-it-will-never-fit big. For as long as I can remember, this very prominent and unalterable physical feature has resulted in my being the butt of all kinds of jokes and name-calling by classmates, friends, colleagues, members of my own family and others. If there’s a derogatory or even remotely humorous comment to be made or a name to call people with unusually large heads, chances are I’ve heard it or been called it at one time or another. You name it, I’ve been called it: “Bucket-head,” “Neo-noggin” (as in Neolithic), “Mr. Potato Head,” “Charlie Brown” and the ever popular “Pumpkin-head.” In the beginning, I was terribly self-conscious and embarrassed by the sheer size of my head—not to mention hurt by the many comments and jokes about it. Over time, I’ve learned to roll with it, to try not to take the remarks too personally. Occasionally, I’ll even join in the “fun” by exaggerating the difficulty I have putting on a fully-expanded golf cap (I’ve learned to wear visors instead) or making a point of stopping by the hat counter and trying on one style after another just to prove the obvious—I have a HUGE head!

But my gargantuan head isn’t the only reason for my aversion to mirrors. You see, I’m also one of the only people on the planet to have been born with an upside-down smile. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. No matter how hard I laugh or how hard I try, I simply cannot make the ends of my mouth form a normal smile. Believe me, I’ve tried everything imaginable. In fact, when my friends first started making fun of my smile, I would stand in front of the mirror at night, sometimes for hours at a time, and physically prop up the ends of my mouth—in the hope that I could train them to go where normal lips go when they smile. No such luck. For a period of time, I actually convinced myself that I would even be content if my lips simply remained neutral when I was trying to smile (i.e., if they stayed straight across, rather than wilted, in response to an uproariously funny joke). Try as I might, that wasn’t happening either. To make matters even more awkward, invariably those who saw my unusual smile for the first time would ask “why I smiled upside down”, assuming, I suppose, that I had a choice in the matter. I always wondered how I should answer that question. The obvious answer, of course, as in the case of my GINORMOUS HEAD, is that “I was born this way”. But, on more than one occasion, I thought it might be far more interesting to suggest that I once had a normal smile, but that over time, the profound sense of sadness that set in every time someone commented on my admittedly unusual appearance had eroded the ends of my lips to the point that they no longer had any interest in returning to their original and intended upright position. Somehow I never found the courage to play that card, choosing instead to simply absorb the quirky stares and often unintentionally harmful comments.

And then, of course, there’s the small issue relating to my ears. Admittedly, this problem is not quite as obvious as the head size and the upside-down smile, but it is made far more apparent than it otherwise would be by virtue of the fact that I have been wearing glasses since I was 12 years old. What’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that one of my ears is slightly lower than the other. Not that big a deal, right? Wrong. From the standpoint of appearance and overall attractiveness, it IS a big deal, particularly for someone who needs to wear glasses, because, as I came to realize, in order for glasses to appear level to the rest of the world, your ears have to be level. When they aren’t, no matter how skillful the optician and his staff are at adjusting your frames, there is simply no way to get them to sit level and function optimally. Consequently, my glasses, like my smile, have always been a bit on the crooked side, not a good combination when you consider the fact that they are attached to a head whose sheer enormity commands immediate scrutiny by everyone I meet. Again, there’s nothing I can do to improve this by-product of birth, much in the same way that there’s no way to change the fact that one of my legs is shorter than the other, that one of my eyebrows is higher than the other or that my shoulders are more than a little on the relaxed side, as opposed to being broad and square as I’ve repeatedly been told “they should be”. Still, at the end of the day, all of these “deficiencies” are simply physical parts of who I am that I’m “forced” to live with, recognizing, of course, that there are real-life consequences attached to them—not the least of which is that, this year, they likely will account for my being left off of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” list for what will be the 57th consecutive year!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a minute that my anatomical eccentricities compare in magnitude or complexity with the body image issues that are such an integral part of the daily lives of many women (and men) – young and old – especially those who are afflicted with illnesses that profoundly compromise a person’s body image perception. I’m also not naïve enough to believe that, as a man, I will ever fully understand the unique challenges associated with those issues where women are concerned. In fact, having listened attentively to women share on the subject over the last several years I know better. Moreover, in poking fun at myself, as I have done to a large extent in this piece, I don’t mean to trivialize body image issues or the obvious power they have to influence the lives and behaviors of those afflicted with such disorders. I am, however, convinced that the path to true happiness and to a more peaceful and life-affirming relationship with our bodies depends on our willingness and ability to care less about the reflection we see in the bathroom mirror each morning and more about the reflections we create in the sometimes radiant, often tear-filled eyes of those whose lives we touch with gifts that will never be captured by a mirror – gifts of friendship, kindness, trust, compassion, empathy, encouragement, understanding – even the simple gift of our mere presence and our willingness to listen.

How can I be so certain? I’m certain because I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to see those reflections countless times in my own life – and, not surprisingly, none of them had anything to do with the size of my head, the shape of my smile, the levelness of my ears, the length of my legs, the proportionality of my eyebrows or my weight, which, at times, fluctuates like the New York Stock Exchange.

I’ve seen them in the dying eyes of a childhood best friend, who, despite our having fallen out of touch for nearly thirty years, was moved to tears and comforted in his final days simply by my taking the time to visit him in the hospital, to hold his hand, to thank him for his friendship so many years ago, when, unbeknownst to him, I too desperately needed companionship, and to offer to help him hoist a small juice box to his lips so that he could quench his thirst.

I’ve also seen the reflection in the frightened gaze of a 10-year-old little leaguer whom I coached many years ago, when, after noticing that tears had started to well up in his eyes, I cared enough to call time-out—first to simply ask if something was wrong and then upon learning that moments before the game, his mom and dad had told him they were getting a divorce, to offer quiet assurances from a coach he knew he could trust that somehow, someday “everything would be all right.”

I saw them in the eyes of a young mother only moments after I uttered a few simple words of affirmation delivered from the heart upon hearing her incredible story—words that told her through the tears that were streaming down my face that although I had just met her, I already greatly admired her courage and her strength, and contrary to her lifelong but no less heart-breaking self-belief, was convinced that she was quite worthy of living.

What’s more important to me, however, is that YOU see it – or at least entertain and then act on the idea of searching for it in your life. Because, I promise you this: If you will embrace the inescapable reality that I know to be true about you, even though you and I have never met (i.e., that you are not the person you perceive or misperceive yourself to be in the bathroom mirror any more than I am), you WILL see it – time and time again – and it may just change your life.