Difficult Conversations, Part 2: Deep Listening

2 of 3 in a series

Last fall my EarthWork colleagues and I ran a facilitated series called Climate Conversations. The purpose of these sessions was to help people talk about the climate crisis. We guided the group through a series of strategies – telling personal stories, finding common ground, connecting facts to emotions – to navigate these often difficult conversations. And while we got great feedback on these sessions, they didn’t seem to really hit home.

Then we did a session on deep, empathetic listening. Our participants were floored at how incredible they felt afterwards. “It’s very rare in life to truly be listened to,” they told us. It was my turn to be floored: a group of confident, well-spoken people with lots of intelligent things to say, admit they rarely felt listened to? What was going on?

“The art of listening comes from a quiet mind and an open heart.”

Ram Dass

It starts with listening 

Listening. It’s simple, it’s easy, we’re born knowing how to do it, right? We may think so, but the truth is, the vast majority of the time people don’t listen well enough to be able to answer simple questions about what a speaker has said. And if they didn’t know what the speaker said, how could they honestly say they were listening? 

What’s going on here? If our ancestors had been terrible listeners, they surely would have been eaten (“Oh, I wasn’t listening for saber-toothed tiger rustling in the bushes because I was too busy thinking about how I’m going to respond the next time Thog disses me.”) 

How can we be so bad at something we have had tens of millennia to become good at? Certainly, the distractions of our modern world take part of the blame. But the main reason is that we are often too busy listening to our own internal monologue—judging what’s been said or rehearsing what we want to say next. Stephen Covey put it perfectly when he reflected, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” 

Well put Stephen, but I want to take it a step further—beyond just understanding. I want everyone to feel like our Climate Conversations participants did. In order to actually help another person feel truly “listened to” (as opposed to just being “heard”) we need to engage in deep listening

Why deep listening

There are many reasons our world would benefit from more people being skilled at deep listening. There are very few barriers (it’s straightforward, portable and free!) and could help us solve some of our most pressing problems.  

Deep listening:

  • leads to open and honest dialogue
  • shows respect to the listener
  • can break down barriers and bridge silos
  • helps us learn more about others and the world
  • reduces loneliness
  • helps people feel appreciated.

How is deep listening different from active listening?

If you’ve ever taken a communications course, you were probably taught “active listening” skills. Deep listening is the upgraded version — like active listening 2.0. 

Active listening is about empathy— paying attention to what is said and making the speaker feel heard (by focusing on their words and paraphrasing). Deep listening, on the other hand, is empathy plus connection—putting together a whole picture of the speaker in this moment: understanding where they are coming from, what their motives and desires are, paying attention to body language and tone of voice. 

Deep listening requires five things 

1) Undivided attention. Cell phones and all other distractions are put away (4/5 of Americans admit to taking their cell phones out during face-to-face conversations). This also means focusing on the words of the speaker (not on what you are going to say next or mentally running through your to-do list).

2) Being open. Enter into the conversation with an open heart and an open mind. 

It also means having open body language. Stand or sit so you are facing them (ideally square on, but at the very least turn your head); nod and signal (“uh-huh”, “wow”, “hmmm”); arms loose and open (not folded across your chest). 

3) Empathy. As they are talking, find personal connections, even if you don’t agree on the big points. Stay curious about what they are saying and suspend your judgement. Empathy also involves noticing how the speaker is feeling and helping them express these emotions (“I noticed you tense up when you said that. Would you like to talk more about that?”).

4) Clarify and Reflect. When they are finished talking* paraphrase the key points (“I just want to make sure I understand…”)—then ask if you got it right. But don’t just parrot back their words. Show your understanding by subtly imparting your perspective (“I could really relate when you talked about being bullied in high school” or “I like how you said that getting lost in a big city is a great way to find yourself.”)

5) Be curious. Ask questions that help them go deeper, and increase your understanding of their situation (“Why is this important to you?”, “Please tell me more about that.”, “That sounds _(crazy/ amazing/ rough)_. What happened next?” “How did that make you feel?”). 

Sounds like a tall order?

Luckily, there’s a secret skill that simplifies the whole process: approach the conversation with the mindset that your partner is intriguing, that you are eager to learn from them, that what they have to say (no matter what the topic) is valuable information. This simple framing of your relationship will put you in the right frame of mind for deep listening. The only caveat is that you can’t fake it— you must actually believe that the other person has something to say that is worth listening to.** 

Try this the next time you are in a conversation: Put your phone, and all other distractions, away. Turn to face the speaker in an open posture (arms free, chin up, smile). When they start talking, focus on their words, what are they saying? Have a look at their body language, listen to their tone – what is not being said? Be curious, what questions come up for you?*** Allow the speaker to finish*, paraphrase their main point and then ask some of these questions. But don’t rush them—let them have as many pauses and silent moments as they need.

Here’s a challenge

For the next week, try to listen deeply to someone everyday. Notice how you feel, observe the change in their body language, note the direction your conversation takes. Extend this challenge week by week until deep listening becomes a habit. Then go out and teach someone else how to do it and give them this challenge.  Deep listening is a gift you can give anyone, anytime—a gift that could make a huge difference in someone’s world.

  1. After a pause they say “What do you think?” or “You know what I mean?” 
  2. They look at you expectantly, eye contact with eyebrows raised
  3. They take a drink or bite of food
  4. They are not looking at their hands or off to the side (these are indications that they are not done speaking).

*In all fairness, everyone is worth listening to. Think of every exchange as a chance to learn and grow. What if your next conversation contained life changing, top secret, priceless information. You won’t know unless you listen. 

** It’s not easy to tell if the other person is done speaking. Here’s how to use body language to know when it’s your turn: 


Brownell, K.D. and Warner, K.E. (2007). The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food. In Milbank Quarterly 2009 Mar; 87(1): 259–294. Retrieved on July 5, 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879177/

Chiu, A. (2022). People don’t really talk about climate change. Here’s how to start. In The Washington Post. Retrieved on July 6, 2023 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2022/09/16/climate-change-conversation-action/

Drinko, C. (2021). We’re worse at listening than we realize. In Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 1, 2023 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/play-your-way-sane/202108/were-worse-listening-we-realize

Hill, S (2017) Are smartphones killing the art of face-to-face conversation? We ask the experts. In Digital Trends. Retrieved on July 1, 2023 from https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/are-smartphones-really-killing-the-art-of-conversation/

Turkle, S. (2015 ) Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.