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Massage Today
January, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 01

The Art of Authentic Listening

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

For most of my adult life I have interacted with people in later life stages living with debilitating conditions. Things like: brain injury, hip fracture, stroke, hearing loss, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and frailty.

Interacting with a person with any of these conditions can be challenging. For example, their speech may be slurred, or they may be confused or talk about their grief and sadness. It has been my experience that one-to-one focused massage sessions tend to invite people to open up about their circumstances. It's not always easy to know how to respond properly. I've learned that communication doesn't start with special techniques or the "right" way to respond. It begins with authentically listening.

Authentic listening is a sacred art. It is listening with presence that goes beyond what your ears hear and what you say in response. It is listening with your heart; it is responding from your authentic self. It is listening for the essence of the interaction and connecting heart to heart.

If we were to take an honest look at how we normally listen, we would appear attentive and listening to the words the other person is saying but, may be distracted by our own thoughts about what we are hearing, and already forming our response. Or we may be having judgments about what is said. Most of the time, we are more involved with our own experience than that of the other person.

Becoming an Authentic Listener

Listening from the heart requires self awareness and a willingness to expand your comfort zone. Intend to listen more authentically. What follows are considerations for becoming an authentic listener.

Quiet your mind. Our minds are in constant motion. There are plenty of internal and external distractions that draw our attention. Getting centered and quieting the mental chatter opens a space for deep attentiveness.

Be willing to listen without judgment. Judgment is a form of reacting based on our own past experience. We often react because our personal triggers get pushed. It is important to become aware of what your triggers are in order to not shut down open communication. As you listen, simply receive without judging what is said. This opens a space for deep trust.

Commit to patience. We live in a rushed world and tend to move on to the next thing rather than attending to what is in front of us. True communication can't be rushed. Be patient with yourself and the other person.

Remain in the moment. Let each moment of the interaction unfold naturally without trying to steer it a certain way or without preconceived ideas about where the conversation needs to go.

Avoid the temptation to formulate a response. Listen first, then respond. Our tendency is to be mentally forming our response while the person is still talking. Focus first on what the person is conveying, then form a response.

Be honest. If you are unable to be fully attentive, it's better to let the person know than to pretend you are listening. Perhaps you are preoccupied or tired. Letting the person know you care but that you can't give your full attention is acting with integrity.

Listen with your eyes. Observe the nonverbal messages, both the speaker's and your own. What is the body posture telling you? Is the voice tone consistent with the spoken words? What is the facial expression?

Listen to the silence as well as the words. Learning to be comfortable sitting in silence with another person is one of the most powerful forms of communication. Silence allows the hearts to connect, and a sacred dialogue is spoken.

Gladly receive the gifts of authentic listening. When you listen from the heart, you enter into a mutual experience of giving and receiving. Let yourself be uplifted by the experience as you uplift the life of the other.

Authentic listening is not about doing anything. No formulated response. No need to fix anything or to make the person feel better. It is not counseling or analyzing. It is about being, not doing. Being with the other person and caring about their experience.

Think on This

To close, I want to share a couple of quotes and ask you to reflect on them to further capture the essence of authentic listening.

"Hearing is something that happens to us. Listening is something in which we choose to participate" - James E. Miller

"Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes on the people around us." - Rachel Naomi Remen

If our paths should cross, I'll do my best to listen to you.


  1. Kriseman N. The Caring Spirit Approach to Eldercare: A Training Guide for Professionals and Families. 2005.
  2. Lindahl K. The Sacred Art of Listening. 2003.
  3. Miller JE. The Art of Listening in a Healing Way. 2003.
  4. The Art of Listening.

Click here for previous articles by Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR.


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