The Mundane Magic of Good Listening

I recently experienced a 9-hour journey aboard an international flight—which was delayed (from its original departure time of 11pm) to a 2am takeoff.

My seat assignment was the middle seat of the middle row. All I wanted, as we boarded, was to settle in and sleep. But I braced myself for the real possibility that I’d be sitting by someone who wanted to talk.

A woman sat beside me, we said hello, and as it happens: we got to talking.

This woman had traveled to visit her father, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She felt anxious about her decision to extend the trip. (She had stayed three weeks longer than originally planned). She was in angst, on a delayed flight, and as worn down as I felt.

My response was simple:

I said that I was sorry about her dad, and that I didn’t think she would regret spending more time with him in the long run.

What I didn’t say, was that my dad died from the exact same cancer.

And that, at the time of his diagnosis (he had one year to live), I had cancelled my plans to go to graduate school and came home to spend those last months with him. And that I have never regretted it for a single moment.  

The response I did give eased her. She said thank you. In that moment, a little bit of human connection was all she seemed to need.

One of the main mistakes people make when listening is not listening long enough.

There are times to highlight our shared experience. But there are many times when the right option is to just listen.

Here’s why:

We don’t have to speak to connect. I knew that my neighbor on the plane didn’t have the bandwidth to offer her empathy and attention. She had just left her father, who was in the throes of suffering. It was her time, not mine.

Without speaking, I was still offering up my full compassion. And she knew it.

That’s the magical thing about good listening.

We have the ability to draw on the emotional connection we feel, and to use it without shifting the attention to ourselves. When we listen with that quiet emotional connection, we exercise presence. That presence makes itself known as compassion.

Think about it—we can sense when someone is compassionate. It’s when we feel safe and open to share. This sense, this presence, forges real human connection. And that is the magic of good listening.

The thing is, every day is filled with these kind of moments—the ones that require us to decide whether or not we’re going to truly listen.

  • Do we notice when and where there’s a need for conversation?

  • And if we do, do we make the choice to pause and engage?

  • Do we believe that we have something to offer by listening?

The decision to listen isn’t always clear-cut. We really may not have the time to stop and talk. Other times, we may be uncomfortable with how a potential conversation will play out.

Good listening requires simple gestures and basic boundary setting:

I’m a firm believer that the work it takes to discern and practice good listening is worth it. The outcome is more positive connections, and those connections improve the quality of our work and the quality of our lives. So...

  1. Pay attention. (Stop multitasking.)

    You can’t listen well while your mind is engaged with something else. Pause to fully focus. Make eye contact. The conversation might take 30 minutes, but it might only take 30 seconds (full attention is more efficient).

  2. Engage with curiosity (vs. defensiveness).

    What someone initially tells you is, by nature, incomplete. There’s always more to the story. Dig a little deeper. You may know what the other person is going to say, but choose to be a learner: Ask follow-up questions. Say ‘Tell me more about that.’

  3. Work toward understanding (not necessarily agreement).

    Conversations call for empathy—especially the tough ones. Engage emotionally by imagining yourself in the other person’s place. Reflect back to ensure you understand: ‘So it sounds like what you’re saying is this…’ You don’t need to agree. You don’t need to make a judgment. Your goal is to understand.  

  4. Discern a call to action (There may not be one.)

    Good listening requires good emotional boundaries. Before overpromising or overextending yourself, ask ‘What’s my role?’ Is there an action for you to take? Sometimes there is, but sometimes the person speaking just needs to get the words out.

And if you happen to be the one there—in the figurative middle seat of the middle row—brace yourself. This is the exact kind of space where magic is needed, and where it’s primed to happen.


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at