Art of Listening

Portrait of Brenda Ueland, circa 1930

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Tell Me More…On the Fine Art of Listening


I came across this great essay by Brenda Ueland many years ago, and have handed it out to new Saturday Salon participants every since.  It really expresses the power of listening.  It sets the stage for your conversation salon, so that everyone isn’t just sitting there waiting for their turn to talk.  Thanks to Holy Cow Press, you get to see it here and in the book in its entirety:

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all, which is so important too, to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.

This is the reason: When we’re listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.

Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners, that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself.

When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created. Now there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too. I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let us express our thoughts and expand, and it is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. That is why, when someone has listened to you, you go home rested and lighthearted.

Now this little creative fountain is in us all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination, whatever you want to call it. It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.

Before going to a party, I tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk, to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs or arguing, or being fascinating. My attitude is: Tell me more. Show me your soul. It may be a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.

Unless you listen, people are wizened in your presence, they become about a third of themselves. Unless you listen, you can’t know anybody. Listening is love, that’s what it really is. The tragedy of parents and children is not listening, as it is with husbands and wives. And the most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom, for it is really the death of love.

In order to learn to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. One must really listen. Only then does the magic begin.

Sometimes people cannot listen because they think that unless they are talking, they are socially of no account. There are those women with an old-fashion attitude that insist there must be unceasing vivacity and gyrations of talk. But this is really a strain on people.

No. We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective, and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends, to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.

Brenda Ueland


From the book

Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings by Brenda Ueland

 © 1993 by The Estate of Brenda Ueland

 Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Holy Cow! Press

All rights reserved

Brenda Ueland’s book is available from Holy Cow! Press

Post Office Box 3170, Mt. Royal Station, Duluth, MN 55803



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