There is something that young men need more than ever, maybe the single greatest gift they’ll ever receive — but most will never get it.
It isn’t seed money for a new business or the down payment on a first home. It isn’t your words of wisdom on career, romance or investing. One-on-one time, frequent encouragement, daily hugs? All are valuable, but by themselves, they don’t come close to the gift I’m speaking about.
When I tell you what it is, you might think it’s unremarkable or self-evident. But, like most of us, you probably don’t give this gift very often, or if you do, not nearly enough of it.
I am speaking about …
Listening. Not just hearing, really listening.
Listening is extraordinarily underrated.
When you listen with all of yourself — ears, eyes, body, heart — it has the subtle power to give a young man who’s feeling unsure of himself the confidence to take risks, to self-govern his decisions, to stand behind his own words. Patient listening offers a stabilizing force to the spirited teenager whose energy is unbounded and looking for meaningful expression. And it can make a vulnerable boy who’s just finding his way in the world, feel safer, considered, and loved.
When a young man is not listened to, he’s not sure if what he’s thinking about is important or valuable. When no one is there to listen to his dreams, to affirm them in the receptive vessel of silence, they will often wither and die. And if he’s not met with focused attention by those whose attention he craves, the young man, the teenager, the boy … all can become doubtful, deflated, and depressed.
Well-known psychologist Robert Moore put it another way, “If you’re a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.” And listening is one of the most potent ways you can actively admire a young man.
Listening isn’t easy.
Maybe you think you’re a good listener. I certainly thought I was. Then, a few years ago, I read a quote by American author and humorist Fran Lebowitz: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”
I understood immediately. I realized that I hadn’t been listening particular well at all. When I was in conversation with the young men (or women) who I wanted to support, I was waiting to make my own point. I was waiting to offer advice. I was waiting for them to finish up, so I could put in my two cents and appear wise and helpful.
And while I was waiting, I wasn’t listening.
A few years ago, I got a call from the wife of a young man who I’d known since he was a boy, someone I liked very much. He had dropped into a miserable depression and she asked me if I could come to their home in a suburb of New York City and speak with him.
I arranged to do so a week later and arrived with an arsenal of ideas on how to help this man. We went into his den, just the two of us, and after a few minutes of small talk, I proceeded to share with him about new therapies that seemed to be effective for depression, the documented benefits of regular exercise, eating regimens that helped to balance mood, as well as giving him the name of an excellent psychotherapist.
He cordially nodded and thanked me. He assured me that he was going to try some of my suggestions. But I can’t remember him saying much else in the two hours we spent together that afternoon. I left and didn’t hear back from him, and didn’t receive another invitation to visit — although I learned that he emerged from the darkest of the despair a few months later.
I’ve thought about that visit many times. I went to his home with good intentions, but also with my own agenda. I didn’t arrive ready to listen to the bottomless ache he was feeling, I showed up with a list of prescriptions and action-items.
With each suggestion I made about how he could fight his funk, I was subtly saying to my friend, “you could get out of this depression if you really wanted to, and here’s how, so get to it.”
I wish that I had had the wisdom to keep my mouth shut that day. I wish I could go back and do it all over again, sit silently with this heartbroken man, willing to listen to him exactly where he was, instead of where I wanted him to be.
You know you’re a lousy listener when …
Bad listening habits abound, but some are less obvious than others. A simple online search turns up a lot of useful articles on becoming a better listener. But here are the most important listening tips I’ve learned over the years:
• Put your cell phone away: This doesn’t just mean not answering your cell phone during a conversation. Research has shown that simply leaving your phone out during a face-to-face conversation affects the quality of the exchange. That’s because everyone present expects it to ring, and is unconsciously waiting for the distraction, so no one is willing to go deep.
• Make eye contact: You know how it feels to be speaking with someone whose eyes are darting all over the room. When you make eye contact you let the person know your attention is on them.
• Keep quiet: I can’t repeat this enough. Resist the temptation to interrupt, ask questions, blurt out affirmatives, or share your own story. This takes practice.
• Don’t lecture. “I never lecture,” you say? Yeah, you do. We all do. Unsolicited advice is lecturing. Stating your opinion is lecturing. Offering constructive criticism is a lecture. And lecturers make bad listeners.
True listening lifts everyone.
No one has written more eloquently about the value of listening than the late 20th century columnist, Brenda Ueland in her essay, The Art of Listening.
She suggests that the inability to listen helps reinforce the characterization of many men, fathers in particular, as absent, remote, or out-of-touch: “… this non-listening of able men is the cause of one of the saddest things in the world — the loneliness of fathers, of those quietly sad men who move along with their grown children like remote ghosts.”
She goes on to say: “… listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener … is more effective and learns more and does more good.”
I think “true listeners” are rare today. With a noisy and intrusive 24-hour news cycle, the ever-present pull of social media, and virtually everyone trying to grab his or her 15-minutes of media attention, listening has taken a back seat to being heard.
But it turns out that listening benefits the “listenee” as much as the listener. Today, when I sit with young people, I do a much better job of keeping quiet so that I can hear what they’re telling me. When I do this, I often discern a larger truth beneath their spoken words, and I never fail to learn more about them, always something new and revealing.
Working at becoming a better listener is worth it. Because if you get good enough to give the gift of true listening to the young men and young women who you care about, you’ll have offered them something immeasurably valuable — the opportunity for them to hear their own authentic voices, anointed with the kind of rich and empowering acceptance that only true listening can offer.
(A version of this essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project website.)