Want a More Meaningful Life? Shut Up and Listen

Sometimes, connection and enlightenment happen in the silences.

become a better listener

I’ve always been a little bit of a chatterbox. In the seventh grade, my music teacher threatened to ban me from the middle school concert because I couldn’t stop talking to my BFF during choral practice. Once, during my teenage years, a homeless man in New York’s Penn Station looked up from his spot on the terminal floor to tell me and my sister (another chatterbox) to shut up because our animated conversation was interrupting his nap. And early on in my career, as I played back a recording of me interviewing someone for a magazine, I realized that I was doing almost as much talking as my subject.

Damn, girl.

Through the years, I’ve learned to cut back on the chatter and make a conscious effort not to interrupt when someone else is talking. But sometimes, especially when I’m excited about the subject at hand, I still find it challenging to shut up for an extended period of time.

Sure, the gift of gab can work to your advantage in social situations like parties and job interviews. But besides getting you kicked out of choral concerts, it does have its drawbacks. The most important of which is that while you are talking, there’s one extremely important thing you cannot do very well.

You can’t listen.

The older I get, the more I realize how crucial it is to be able to listen. And I’m not talking about that half-assed “yeah, yeah, I hear you” look you give people when you’re pretending to listen but are actually preoccupied with your thoughts. I’m talking about really, truly listening to someone. I’m talking (there goes the talking again) about being in the moment, fully engaged in what another human being has to say. Without thinking about your to-do list, or about where you have to be in a half-hour. And without worrying about the next thing you need to say.

“The practice of listening is one of the most mysterious, luminous and challenging art forms on earth,” writes Mark Nepo in his beautiful book Seven Thousand Ways To Listen: Staying Close To What Is Sacred. “The task is to slow down enough and be present enough to enter each moment that calls…Are you letting fresh experience enter and combine, or are you obsessed with sorting and analyzing what comes your way? Are you able to listen and receive, or are you observing and manipulating? We all do both.”

As a journalist, I’ve found that shutting up and listening is the only way to get a good story. Yes, starting an interview with some friendly banter can help put my subject at ease. But I can’t ask those “in the moment” follow-up questions—the ones that often yield the juiciest quotes—if I’m focused on checking items off a prepared list. And I certainly won’t pick up on the person’s mood if I’m not quietly observing those gestures and tones that reveal a lot about someone’s personality.

But what about those deadly silences that might erupt if I lose track of my agenda or don’t formulate a response quickly enough? It’s a normal impulse to fill those awkward moments with chatter, but then nothing unexpected has time to develop within them. The person doing the talking has no room to reflect or reveal something deeper. Some of the best quotes have come from my sources after a long, borderline-awkward pause. So I remind myself it’s OK to let them happen.

This concept also rings true with my interactions with my kids. My daughter started conversing at 6 months, probably because I talked to her nonstop. But whenever I took a break from telling her to “look at the doggy” or “see those pretty flowers on the tree,” that’s when I got to enjoy her babbling and cooing and smiling at me. I’d given her time to absorb what I’d said, then look around and formulate her own reactions. Again, a lot of great stuff can happen during those pauses.

The older I get, the more I understand the virtue of restraint. We go through life striving to be more outgoing, more revealing—especially in this age of social media. But sometimes it makes more sense, and allows us to let more in, to go slowly.

We all want our lives, our relationships, our communication with people to be meaningful. Sometimes we want it all to be extraordinary. We want the most important people in our lives to understand that we understand them. That we hear them.

A few years back I took voice lessons with a great teacher who taught me that yes, sometimes you need to hold a note for effect, but other times you should just release it. Now, as you can imagine, I am inclined to sing the hell out of something. To belt it out. But there’s a time and place for lingering, and sometimes holding back is the way to go.

For many of us, restraint is difficult. (But there’s so much to express! So much to let out!) But Nepo explains that listening itself is the ultimate form of connection. “We speak deeply by listening with heart to the Source, no matter who or what conveys it,” and by translating that presence not just into any old speech, but into meaningful speech. So that when something finally comes out of your mouth, it’s more than fluff.

I just love that. Because we all want our lives, our relationships, our communication with people to be meaningful. Sometimes we want it all to be extraordinary, in no way superficial or ho-hum. We want the most important people in our lives to understand that we understand them. That we hear them.

Nepo wrote this book after he learned that he was losing his hearing. They say we don’t realize what we have until it’s slipping away, so maybe he was only able to comprehend the gift of listening as his ears began to fail him. Luckily, he grasped the beauty and complexity of this ability—including the fact that listening involves much more than hearing. It requires you to open your heart and mind as much as your ears.

Why bother? “Because listening stitches the world together,” Nepo writes. “Listening is the doorway to everything that matters…And none of what matters reveals itself unless we stop to listen…This is the work of being human, from which no one is exempt.”

Is Your Kid the Class Informant?

Someone at school's gotta spread all that juicy gossip.


One day during her second grade year, my daughter came home from school with her first big assignment: to write a report on an ancient Egyptian god. For my child’s subject, the teacher chose Nephthys, a goddess who had two crucial but vaguely similar jobs: to supervise the work of housewives, and to lead women into the underworld.

Nephthys was also famous for killing her husband, disguising herself as her sister, then getting her brother-in-law sloshed and seducing him into impregnating her. Nice role model, that Nephthys. She makes wearing a vile of blood around one’s neck or stepping out of a limo without panties look like the work of Mother Theresa. //READ MORE

Got Community? If Not, Start Building.

How to find your peeps and create a home away from home.

creating a community

The other day on the phone, my mother told me again. “You do too much. Why do you do this to yourself? You’re always running around. You should learn how to say no.” She’s said these things to me for years, partially because she remembers how exhausting it is to be a mom. But also because she can’t understand why I take on so much responsibility that falls outside what she considers the normal realm of family obligations.

Sure, I’m taking care of a home, a marriage, two kids and a dog, as well as attempting to get a new business off the ground. I also freelance, volunteer a lot of time to my children’s school, attend conferences, and very often host meetings and get-togethers in my home. This is stuff my mother didn’t do when she was raising a family—partially because she wasn’t cursed with the same kind of frenetic energy I have, but also because she had no real need—like I do, living so far from my family back East //READ MORE

How I Met Your Father

Considering the ancient technology, kids, it’s a wonder it even happened.

The Giver

My daughter and I recently saw The Giver, a film set in a utopian society that has eliminated its history and the human emotions associated with it. A boy named Jonas is trained by someone called the Giver, an old guy who has stored inside him all the community’s memories—feelings included—and must transfer them to his protégé.

After watching the movie, it occurred to me that people roughly 35 and older should serve as “givers” to the next generation, and the memories we should pass down are that of a former technological age. Think about it: Today’s kids are the very last generation to have parents who were raised before the digital revolution. This is a big responsibility for all of us who were born in 1980 or earlier. Our children need to “receive” this precious knowledge from us, before words like “Xerox” and “collect call” are forgotten and the emotions associated with these experiences have gone the way of the typewriter. //READ MORE

Oh, Mickey, What a Pity

Da mouse may be in da house, but my kids would rather be at the hotel pool.

disney with kids

I may have the only kids in America who don’t go gaga over Disney World.

After a recent five-night stay in the “happiest place on earth,” I realized that my children have much different happiness criteria than the Mickey Mouse-and-rollercoasters recipe that floated my boat three decades ago. Yes, they enjoyed Space Mountain, shooting targets with Buzz Lightyear and eating popcorn at 11 o’clock at night while watching fireworks. But for them, Disney World wasn’t the dreamy, end-all vacation it had been for me when my parents took me at age 10. Besides the fact that Disney is now competing with high-tech video games and lowered attention spans, why was the experience so different for my kids?

Full disclosure: When we visited Mickey’s hood last month the temperature in Orlando, Florida, was close to 100 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. It was peak tourist season, so of course the lines to all the rides were excruciatingly long and the restaurants overflowing, despite our savvy use of FastPass (a great new service for those who like planning ahead) and online dinner reservations. But those weren’t the deal breakers for my kids, ages 11 and 8. Sure, they bitched and moaned about the heat and the crowds. But the real complaints were about stuff I never anticipated. //READ MORE

Get in My Bed! (And Other Hollywood Lessons)

Ready to break your heart, ruin your life and make things a mess? Great—just don't tell me about it.

Moonstruck Get in my Bed

Everyone finds themselves confused, at least once or twice in their lives, about matters of the heart. Over the course of the past few months, I’ve had around a dozen conversations with friends and acquaintances—whether they’re married or single, gay or straight, old or young—who suspect they are dating the wrong person, married to the wrong person, or coveting the wrong person. Or sometimes the problem is that they’re with a person at all, when they just want to be alone, or snuggling up to their pet chihuahua watching The Real Housewives.

Of course, the reason the person is “wrong” for them varies. They could have the wrong career, the wrong personality, or the wrong attitude about commitment. They could have incompatible personalities, incompatible work schedules, or incompatible levels of passion. Sometimes wrong just translates to crazy, or not crazy enough. There are many reasons these objects of affection are possibly not the right choice. //READ MORE