Perhaps you’ve noticed that most of us, rather than listening, are waiting to speak.

To listen means we suspend our internal monologue to hear what someone else is saying. If we’ve heard them, not only can we recite their words back to them, but we can also understand why they’re saying them: we read between the lines to detect ulterior motives, biases, or beliefs hidden from the speaker. Listening is a generous act in this respect: we hear, then probe the speaker to help her become aware of what’s hidden in her mind. At the very least, we can develop empathy for her. Here is an example I recently encountered with a student:

Me: Hi, Lucy. How was your summer?

Lucy: It was good. I worked the whole time at my internship. They offered me a job, though. 

Me: That’s great, but you don’t sound excited. Why’s that?

Lucy: Well, I look at the number of years people have worked there: thirty years, forty years, and I think, “Is this what the rest of my life’s going to be?

Me: Do you think you’d be okay with that?

Lucy: Well, the company is worth billions of dollars; my supervisor said I could suggest my own salary; it’s in a good location; my boyfriend will probably end up working for the company too. 

Me: That sounds great. Why haven’t you said “yes” yet?

Lucy: My dad got me the internship. My parents pay for my school, my phone, my clothes; they suggested where I should go to college and that I should major in computer science. I feel like my parents have done everything for me, and if I take this job I might be there for the rest of my life, and I’m scared I’ll look back and realize I never did anything for myself, that I never did what I actually wanted to do. 

Lucy didn’t say the last sentence; I did. It’s what I read between the lines from this conversation, combined with many previous conversations. A poor listener would hear Lucy’s words; a good listener would help Lucy detect a fear many students share: that soon they’ll have to become independent. A poor listener might also try to suggest what Lucy ought to do; a good listener probes to reveal the problem, knowing only the speaker can choose.