How to Listen Well

This is a new feature called Good Thoughts from Good Folks where I ask a few good folks for their good thoughts on a question I’m thinking about. This week’s good folks: Nate Sloan, Charlie Harding, Jamie Yuenger, Sophie McKibben

This week’s question: How do you listen well?

Nate Sloan is a music historian, teacher, performer, co-host of music podcast Switched on Pop, & Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University.

For me, listening is the process of parsing meaning from noise. Whether I am listening to music or speech, the process is the same. First, I listen to the surface—the tone, grain, volume, shape, cadence of the sound. Then, I go deeper, listening for structure, phrase, repetition and counterpoint. Then I step back, listen for connections between the sound and other sounds, put the sound in context and conversation with those around it. Somewhere between surface, structure and symbol lies meaning. This is what separates listening from hearing: one is active, the other is passive.

Charlie Harding is a songwriter, co-host of music podcast Switched on Pop, and Director of Product Management at Ushahidi.

Music has taught me to surrender my own voice in favor of listening to the other. When I play music, it is like a conversation where everyone is speaking at the same time and instantaneously reacting to each other. It's a magical way of communicating. I try to do the same in normal conversation, turning off my inner voice to be totally present with the speaker, only responding where there is space.

Jamie Yuenger is the Founder & CEO of StoryKeep, a company that builds generational bonds by creating films and books that honor family stories.

Honestly, I listen well by mostly staying quiet. When I make real emotional space for another person, I find that the other person relaxes, opens up, and says the most incredible things. I lean in. I lean back. I let go a little bit of an earlier version of myself. Listening well is ultimately about holding open the door for this human-to-human interaction to truly affect you, to change you.

Sophie McKibben is the Co-Founder/Editor of Now Here This, an online platform for studio-produced storytelling. She is a student at Brown University.

I try to listen for details. They can be adjectives--the color of someone's socks, the smell of the cheese--and they can be sounds that themselves tell a story--the way the child with asthma breathes, a nervous laugh, a quirky way of pronouncing something. I try to listen to things that sound different. Radio, podcasting - all types of audio storytelling - tend to sound pretty similar, same types of people, same voices, same style, same stories. It’s really exciting to me when something comes along that’s outside of that norm.

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