Deep listening has never been a more important skill, and it’s one you should be trying this festive season.
When Alex was 17 she left the country where she was raised and moved overseas for university.
“I was extremely fortunate to develop close friendships with a handful of friends who I now count as family,” she says. “There are three women who I can go to with absolutely anything. If I’d committed a murder, they’d be googling countries with no extradition. Been cheated on, they’d google how to hire a hitman.”
It was through these close female friendships that Alex learnt the power of deep listening. That is, going beyond platitudes and really asking (and taking in) what is happening in someone’s life. It’s about not merely asking ‘How are you?’ but taking it to the next level: ‘How are you really?’
“I ended a long-term relationship earlier this year with a lovely guy who wanted different things,” Alex recalls. “I was really stuck as to what this meant next for me. Was I a terrible human? Will I be alone forever? I got the most sage wisdom from these friends breaking down what I wish I could have said more succinctly. It shocked me out of my slump.”
For Alex, deep listening is about “reading between the lines” when someone is telling you how they are, making sure that you ask for – and try to understand – the full story. “So much of our interactions even amongst friends are surface-level, and when someone asks how we are we automatically say ‘good thanks’. I can’t think of the last time someone responded truthfully to that question, so knowing there are people who you can totally bare your soul to is incredibly comforting.”
Alex isn’t the only one trying to change the way they ask (and respond) to the question ‘How are you?’ In an interview last year, Zoë Kravitz said that she’s started answering the question truthfully and without shame.
“It’s helped me want to connect with everybody,” she said. “When I go to the deli or I’m talking to a waiter or my Uber driver and they say ‘How are you?’ I’ve answered in an honest way for the first time. Like, ‘Oof’. Even that felt good.”
“Let’s let everything come to the surface, even with people we come in contact with for a moment. This situation can helps us be a little bit more awake with each other.”
Kate Moyle, a relationship psychotherapist, says that by really listening to someone when they talk to us we convey how much we value them in our lives.
“Listening is a skill, and one that is sadly and too regularly lost in everyday life,” Moyle says, “especially as currently we are almost always multitasking between what we are doing an our phone screens.”
“When we give someone our full attention, and ask the question ‘How are you?’ openly listening to their answer, we are showing them their importance. To have someone’s full attention is a demonstration that we are worth it and important enough to deserve it, which makes us feel special.”
This connections helps break down the barriers in interpersonal relationships, allowing us to fully open up to those we are in communication with. Unburdening like this a powerful privilege, and one that can help us all feel a little less isolated.
And when more than nine million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say that they are always or often lonely, with two thirds feeling uncomfortable admitting to how lonely they really are, that can only be a good thing, right?
Alex says that she has a “small circle” with whom she practices deep listening. “It necessitates undying loyalty and trust,” she explains, so “as they do for me, I listen deeply to my close friends. We are scattered across the world but still manage to make it work when one of us has a new job, heartbreak, or is trying to make a big life decision.”
This is your challenge this Christmas: ask someone ‘How are you really?’ And when you do, make sure you’re truly listening to their answer.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.