Three Ways to Be a Better Listener

Respond, don't react. Rather than listening with the intent of speaking, listen with absolutely zero intention other than discovery. Don't react to what you hear, but respond to it at a later time.
03/30/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated May 30, 2014

Learning another language is like being a toddler. I live in Vietnam and I need to express myself daily: what I want to eat, where I need to go or sharing the magnificence of yesterday's sunset. The problem is I am plagued with a communication restraint because I'm barely on the inside and still on the outside. I don't have enough Vietnamese language proficiency -- that is, a keen understanding of the grammatical structures and cultural values to accurately convey my thoughts. So therefore I have learned to rely on that most primitive undertaking: listening.

There is no artifice for language. It requires of me two very indelible, human, simplistic qualities, speaking and listening. While I take Vietnamese language lessons, nothing will ever replace the gloriously humiliating experience of going outside and trying to connect with a real, live Vietnamese person.

It is said that George Gershwin wrote his infamous 1924 Rhapsody in Blue after listening to the sounds of New York City mesmerize him on the train.

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer -- I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper -- the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.

Similarly, American transcendentalist and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, was heavily influenced by his time spent living alone on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau used to sit in his doorway from sunrise to noon, observing, and listening to the sounds around him. He heard the train shrieking, the birds chirping, the water rushing, and the bells tolling nearby. He did this to remind himself to be present for every moment. Thoreau sought to hear truth, in nature's form, revealing itself through diligence and patience. Listening was an exercise in veracity. It was an act of finding, rather than seeking:

Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Thoreau warned against ennui, or the feeling of dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement, for there is always something to learn.

Every morning, a woman named Liem rolls her metal food cart in front of my room. The rusty wheels and pungent steam notify me it's breakfast time. When I first met Liem, I politely asked for a bowl of bun cha (pork noodle soup) in my best broken Vietnamese, and took a seat on one of the red plastic chairs scattered around her cart. A piping hot bowl of fresh noodles was placed in front me. Success!

I stand out from the crowd in Vietnam with my very un-Vietnamese brown skin and curly hair, and while sitting in my chair, Liem tries to engage me in simple conversation. In the U.S, a speedy and efficient customer service experience is championed. Transactions are cursory, one-click affairs, and I appreciate this! But the value system in Vietnam is different. Here, I am expected to engage. Survival depends on connection, community effort, and simplicity of living.

Everyday, I come back to Liem's cart, prepared to watch and listen. I notice the man who sits across from me every morning is her adoring husband. I notice the little boy with the turquoise beanie is her grandson. I watch her make my bahn mi sandwich -- listening intently as she carefully selects each ingredient. Trung! (egg) Pate! (liver) Chuot! (cucumber) Ot! (chili sauce). By listening, I begin to understand the undercurrents and sensitivities of her language, and symbiotically, her culture.

Listening brings me into reality. Thoreau would listen for the whistle of the train and instantly appreciate the enterprise it represented -- the "planetary motion" of freight, horses, and farmers that inform the entire system of production.

Similarly, when I listen, I see that Liem has woken up at 4 a.m. to go to the market and buy fresh noodles, pork and vegetables for my $0.50 meal. She purchased these items from a farmer who stayed up very late, organizing his produce and tending his animals. Seeing and listening makes my world more whole, and it makes me a better communicator. I've learned, listening takes more effort than speaking, a simple task people too often forget. With that, here are three tips for becoming a better listener:

1) Listen for new sounds: Listen for new words and new sounds. Even the most familiar people and places have the ability to offer us a bit of something new.

2) Respond, don't react: Rather than listening with the intent of speaking, listen with absolutely zero intention other than discovery. Don't react to what you hear, but respond to it at a later time.

3) Put your phone away: "A quieter life takes more notice of the world, and uses technology more for curiosity and less for conquest. It finds comfort and restoration in unmediated perceptions." Malcolm McCullough, Ambient Commons.