A few years ago, while on a tour bus of Soweto, the tour guide sat himself next to me, seizing the last remaining seat.  “Sawubona,” he said with a warm smile, as we drove from one destination to another.  “How are you?” he continued when I didn’t answer.  “Fine thank you, and you?” I replied perfunctorily, to which he said “No, Sawubona, really how are you?  I want to know!”  How could he want to know?  He had only just met me.  I decided to take a chance as I had nothing to lose.  I wouldn’t see him again after the tour so I could tell him a bit about my day and some of my trivial worries.  To my amazement, he listened.  But when I say ‘listened’, I mean he truly heard me.  At the end of my story, he looked at me intently and said “Thank you.  Sawubona.  I now see you as you are.  In Zulu we respond with Shiboka, which means ‘I exist for you’.”   

In that exchange I felt seen in a way I hadn’t in a while.  I was left to ponder why this interaction, a short moment with a stranger, had felt so meaningful.  In everyday life, we seldom take the time to truly listen to another being.  We seldom have the time, but more aptly, we seldom make the time to do so.  In taking care of our families, performing at our jobs, and managing our households, simple human interactions often are last on our list of priorities.  In fact, taking the time to hear about another’s travails can feel annoying, like an interruption, or even an imposition.    

Yet, if we zoom out to view the larger picture, we, in Western societies, are lonelier than ever.  Newspaper articles suggest we may be confronting a loneliness epidemic (Holt-Lunstad, 2018), which has only been worsened by the impact of COVID-19.  Loneliness can affect our physical well-being, disrupting our sleep patterns, increasing our blood pressure, and impairing our immune system’s ability to fight infections (Cacipoppo, Capitanio, & Cacioppo, 2014).  And what’s more, loneliness can be devastating to our emotional well-being.  It can lead to depression or anxiety and increase our feelings of stress (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006).

There are several thoughts as to why we are becoming increasingly lonely.  There is evidence showing that our network sizes are decreasing.  We aren’t joining as many religious institutions, political organizations, or social clubs (Putnam, 2000).  A lot of our socializing, especially since the pandemic hit, takes place online, which is a sore replacement for in-person interactions.  Our society is more mobile than ever before, which makes it even more difficult to maintain connections.  And these are just some of the external factors.  
But there are other reasons as well and that has to do with the quality of our interactions when we are actually with others.  We are out of the habit of truly listening.  In order to listen, we may need to undo old habits and form new ones.  


A first step to listening is to shift our priorities.  We tend to view small exchanges as interruptions to our day.  What if we were to shift these moments to the top of our priority list?  Asking your child how their day was and then listening to what they have to say is one of the most important things you can do.  Asking your partner what they are thinking about is more consequential than cleaning your kitchen floor or fixing a shingle that dangles from your roof.  And listening to a stranger on a bus is significant, both to that person and to you.  We can’t underestimate the meaning of a shared moment.


Another step to listening is to focus on the person who is talking.  This may sound obvious.  It may seem simple and easy, but it is far from that.  It involves practice.  It involves mindfulness and it involves focus.  When we listen to another, our own thoughts jump to mind.  We match their experiences with our own.  We compare what they’re saying with what we’ve been through.  However, to listen to someone else means putting our own “stuff” aside.  We save it for later.  We evaluate if it is helpful to the other person to hear.  We recognize that sometimes a person just needs another to hear and not to speak.  


True listening is a gift we give to others, but it is also a gift we give to ourselves.  We create a shared experience with another being.  We achieve what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state, or “being in the zone”.  We are fully immersed, completely involved, and totally present in an experience.  And this state is amazingly rewarding.  We feel connected.  We are no longer alone.  

I often think back to that short moment I had with a tour guide on a bus all those years ago.  In those five minutes, I learned more than I’d learned in many of the courses I have taken.  I learned the importance of simply listening.  In doing so, the listener gives a gift to another; that of being truly accepted, of being totally seen.