What is Deep Listening?

Are you a Deep Listener? If not, would you value learning the skills required to practice Deep Listening? And just what is Deep Listening anyway? You hear pretty good anyway, right?

Consider these:

  • What do you listen for?
  • How do you listen?
  • Who do you listen to?
  • Why are you listening?
  • Are you listening about something or someone, or are you listening for something or someone?

As you ponder these five questions to come up with your answers, below are several things to consider. There’s work to do and practice before we can answer those questions on a deeper level.

First, elephant ears. Yes, elephant ears, as in “Put on your elephant ears” or “Listen with your elephant ears!” Those words came from a coaching and leadership training seminar I assisted with over a decade ago, and I’ve remembered them every since. One evening as we were meeting (this seminar met over a period of three months) just before the participants arrived, one of the course leaders curved his arms out and up at both sides of his head. He was a young man, a tall guy named Jonathan.

“Put on your elephant ears,” said Jonathan. “Imagine you have these big, huge, enormous, elephant ears out to here, like this,” he said as he motioned again with his arms. “Elephants can hear really, really well over vast differences. And many people these days don’t feel heard. Even when they’re up close to someone else. They don’t feel listened to by other people. So put on your elephant ears and listen to them. Listen with your elephant ears as if you’re gonna hug them with ‘em. Yes, listen to each person as if you’re gonna wrap these huge, enormous ears around them and hug ‘em. Hug these people with your elephant ears!”

We got it. I got it. Forever. Jonathan was a stand for powerful listening.

Empathy is a powerful listening tool, too. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, known for his pioneering work on emotional intelligence or EQ, there are three kinds. Interestingly enough, it is ideal to have some of all three and many people do or can train and develop themselves to be more empathic.

First is cognitive empathy. When I, or you, understands what another thinks. That means to see another’s perspective or point of view even if we don’t agree with it. At least we get it. You must be a really good listener to understand another’s viewpoint. Problems occur when people of this type can listen well enough to understand another, but they don’t care about you except how to manipulate you for their own ends.

The second is emotional empathy. This is the ability for a person, including us, to feel the emotions of other people. Emotional empaths are great at naturally tuning in to other’s feelings and emotions. They’re so good at it they feel the same feelings and emotions inside themselves as if they were their own. This feeling for the other results from deep listening and by firing the brain’s mirror neuron system creates rapport. Emotional empathy allows one to feel with another but not for or about them. There’s no compassion.

Empathic concern combines the above two, the cognitive and emotional varieties of empathy, the desire to understand another plus the capacity to feel their feelings, with compassion. Compassion can be defined as concern for another with the desire to help them out and make things better.

Deep listening, truly deep listening demands empathy. It not merely hearing with your ears and auditory senses, but you being able to tune in to another’s needs. You’re paying attention.

Another powerful tool for deep listening is silence. Jokes and quotes have been made about “why God gave us two ears but only one mouth.” There’s a point in all that. If your mouth is running a mile a minute how can anyone listen? And are you even being heard? Can you hear yourself? A friend of mine on Facebook recently pointed out the word “silent” has all the same letters as “listen.”

In another seminar training in a different institute, the leader became incensed with me over what I was absolutely certain was a huge misunderstanding. After I sat still and listened for a long time to other people telling me their opinions, I didn’t agree with any of it. And I opened up to just listen to them. In fact, I had to listen to them to discern whether or not I agreed or disagreed with them in the first place. As the moment wore on, none of that even mattered. To learn and to practice awareness and the ability to shut up and listen intently to what others are saying, the leader suggested I get a copy of Stuart Wilde’s book 1996 Silent Power and read it. I did.

It’s a slim volume jammed with insights and practices. Much of it had to do with keeping your mouth shut and your heart open. I learned to pay attention not just to others but also to our surroundings. For me to listen deeply to others, I first had to listen deeply to my self. The same for you. You can learn to listen deeply to others. First you must listen deeply to your self. Not your ego, or your belly, or your genitals, but to your soul, your spirit, your sense of self. Better yet, pay attention to all of those; so much you can discern what’s truly powerful and in alignment with your purpose.

Listening has a deep resonance for me, especially as I don’t hear well. I was a birth trauma baby and as a result became partially deaf. The doctors at first diagnosed me as being “mentally retarded.” That’s what they told my Mom and Dad. It was my step-grandmother who as she kept me for a week while my parents took a long overdue vacation realized my hearing had to be checked. I ended up wearing hearing aids, spent almost 6 years in speech therapy learning to read and speak English clearly, and was mainstreamed into hearing schools. All of that generated many challenges for my family and I.

As I grew up into adulthood, I learned how to read lips, facial expressions, gestures, and more subtle “body English.” While those abilities complemented, even enhanced my hearing, they didn’t necessarily make me a better listener. I had to work through many of my own issues to get in touch with myself. In a way to serve as a deep listener for others was similar to learning one must first learn to love one’s self before they can truly love another.

That is Deep Listening. Now you’re deep in the ocean as a whale or a submarine running silent. Or astride the African savannah with your elephant ears wide open. That’s great! Powerful! Because now you can go back up and answer those five questions.


Goleman, Daniel. “ ‘Empathy’ – Who’s Got It, Who Does Not,” Daniel Goleman.info. May 2009, <http://danielgoleman.info/2009/05/02/empathy-whos-got-it-who-does-not/>.

Wilde, Stuart. Silent Power. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 1996, 2003.


William Dudley Bass
12 August 2011
Revised and republished 26-27 November 2011
Seattle, Washington

NOTE: Originally published in Cultivate and Harvest, one of my earlier blogs, on 12 August 2011. Then it was revised and re-published here. Thank you.


Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.



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