"Listening is Loving" - the Art of Lending an Attentive Ear

I had a lot of work to get to, but something told me to stay on the phone. What's an extra few minutes, I thought.

"You know sometimes, my friends don't understand me and it gets me down", said the voice on the other end.

"Right, I said. Sometimes people don't realize that their words/actions hurt. 

Have you tried telling them how you feel?"  

I listened a bit more and reassured her the best I could that she is not alone. When the call felt about done, she told me she's going to go see her son. I thought that was weird, since she said she felt down and didn't want to see anyone. "Oh okay, I said, just for a visit?" 

"No, she said, I have to go see him to make sure I don't do anything stupid". 

If you're guessing the worst about this, you are correct. By "anything stupid", she was referring to committing suicide. 

I followed the protocol for this, provided resources and explained that a counsellor would be getting back to her soon. 

As the Admin Assistant for the Mental Health and Addictions team at a community centre some years back, it was not uncommon to hear heavy stuff. Part of the role was to start the intake forms for counselling services when people called in seeking support. So I had heard a lot before...but this call stayed with me.

When I hung up the phone, I had chills all over. It was a defining moment for me; the moment I realized what an impact the smallest gestures can have. All I kept thinking was, what if I had brushed her off? I didn't want to be presumptuous and give myself massive credit where it wasn't due; but the thought did cross my mind- imagine the simple act of listening could save a person's life? 

A Lost Art

"Listening is loving" is one of the insights gained by Hector, in the 2014 movie Hector and the search for Happiness. Hector, a Psychiatrist who feels empty and unmotivated in his role, goes on a quest to find out what true happiness is and isn’t, and takes notes of what he learns along the way. 

His lesson about listening came while a woman he came across was experiencing a medical issue. She tells him a bit of her life story. Feeling helpless, he asks if there is anything he can do. She then tells him he has done enough- he listened.

It immediately resonated with me upon viewing this, because of what I had been told several times in my adult life- that I’m a good listener, or that I helped someone just by listening. I never thought of listening as a special skill, till friends and colleagues kept mentioning it. So I started paying more attention...and quickly realized- it is indeed, a lost art.

Do You Hear What I Hear? A Bunch of Crappy Listeners

The more attention I paid, the worse it seemed to get.

I had noticed most of these behaviours before, just not how often they occurred and how common they were.

Here are examples of instances I became even more aware of:

  • “conversations” between two people, talking OVER each other. Before one finishes their sentence, the other one has already started theirs. It is almost comical sometimes. I don't think either one of them needs the other. They could literally talk to a wall and get the same results.
  • I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-*ss body language. When people, sometimes friends even, look entirely disinterested when YOU speak (not making eye contact, looking around the room, quickly changing subjects, not having much to say in response, etc.), yet you listened intently to every one of their rather underwhelming stories. They are super animated when they have the centre stage, but couldn't care less when it's your turn to share. 
  • people who cut you off when you are speaking, in front of a group of 3 or more. They avert their eyes and attention to someone else, while speaking over you...like you’re basically not there. 
  • the "OMG, me too, but even more than you" people who turn everything back onto themselves, when you had just expressed something important about you that you wanted support with. It is now about them. 
  • the painfully oblivious motormouths. I once carpooled with a colleague who would talk the whole 30-min. ride home about herself. When I went on vacation for a week, even on a fun trip to Chicago, I was baffled that she did not even ask how my vacation was, upon my return.

And then of course, the hilarious examples with my mostly attentive and caring husband, in his less dignified moments:

Me: “Babe, do we have an ice pick, to clear all this ice on the driveway?”, as we pulled out of the slippery driveway and headed to work one winter morning.

Him: “Yes we do”.

Him, as we turned the corner: “I have to go to Canadian Tire this weekend.

Me: “What for?

Him: “To buy an ice pick to get rid of the ice on the driveway.” 

I proceeded to look at him like he had two heads. Maybe three.

His ability to tune me out yet convince me he is listening is impressive. Sometimes I am in stitches because of this. He has agreed many times to plans he didn’t care for. Haha - serves him right! He listens when it matters though, and that’s why I can easily laugh at the times when he doesn’t.

The Rewards

I can only speak from experience, as I'm not a Psychologist and I don’t have studies to back anything up. But from what I’ve lived, there are most definitely mental health benefits to practicing good listening.

It's pretty obvious what benefits the person being listened to can reap- validation, care, compassion, etc.

What is less obvious, however, is what benefits one can reap as the listener. 

Here are a few that I've personally experienced, as a long-time "good listener":

  • PerspectiveWere you ever having a bad day, only to speak to someone, learn about their situation, and quickly realize that your problems pale in comparison to what others are going through? It can certainly put things into perspective for you, much like my call with the lady that I described in the intro. When you're so focused on yourself- your life, your problems, your feelings, you can easily blow matters out of proportion in your mind and cause yourself unnecessary suffering. Reminders that it could be so much worse are like perfect little shakes by the shoulders that snap us back to reality.
  • Gratitude. There have been times when I listened to someone, empathized with what they were experiencing; and soon after, called my husband to tell him I love him or made plans to visit my parents. We learn from others, and feeling the raw pain of someone going through a divorce or of someone who just lost a parent helps you WAKE 👏 UP 👏 and appreciate who and what is right in front of you.
  • Purpose. For pretty much my whole career, I have been working in office jobs that, although I'm super grateful for, don't really fulfill me. One way I learned to compensate for that, is by seeking gratification in other ways. One is with my weird sense of humor that I subject others to. Another is by making a difference in people's lives with the help of kind and thoughtful gestures. My role at the community centre allowed me to discover just how much a seemingly small gesture, like listening, can impact another person and lift their spirits. It adds meaning and a sense of contribution, to otherwise regular, meaningless desk jobs.
  • Connection. This is perhaps the biggest and least obvious benefit of listening that I've noticed. What I've observed among crappy listeners is that many of them struggle to make meaningful connections with others. Sure, they might blend in and look okay in social media pictures, but the truth is a little different- they are lonely. Whenever I would meet a friend for lunch who is a great listener, I always left feeling energized and on a high almost. The natural pace of our interaction and the even and effortless exchanges between us created a genuine, feel-good connection- super important for mental health! You can better relate to one-another and build on that. Which then leads to long-lasted friendships and unique bonding experiences. On the flip side, when I would meet with others who wouldn’t let me get a word in or seemed uninterested in what I had to say, I returned to work feeling short-changed, and depleted of energy. Come to think of it, I am much closer to my friends who are good listeners, than to those of my friends who aren't. Good listening leads to deeper connections.

To me, these points alone are worth practicing good listening. It's the same as the old adage about giving: giving, not receiving, is the best reward. So is listening.

"Strive on With Awareness"

Like anything else, however, too much of a good thing can end up being a bad thing.

There are a lot of ME-MONSTERS out there, as comedian Brian Regan would call them. That’s how he refers to people who are so self-focused, they monopolize every interaction. And if you’re not careful, they will suck you dry of energy and time.

It takes some practice, but striking the right balance between listening to others and recouping enough energy for you and your needs comes with experience. I now know when I need to limit my time with certain people, give myself space from others and recharge my batteries, without feeling guilty about it. 

I learned the hard way- be generous, but protect your energy. Set healthy boundaries. It takes time like any other skill, but eventually you'll get the knack of it. 

I Hear Ya

I hope I made convincing enough points about lending an attentive ear to others on your journey. 

Yes I know - you're busy as it is...I hear ya on that one. Like many things in life it's not always easy...but trust me on this one- it's so worth it.

You could totally make someone's day out there, potentially gain a new friend or who knows...maybe even save someone's life.


If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please consider speaking to someone- a friend, family or resources in your area. 🙏 Here is the number for the Distress Line of Ottawa:






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