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  • Writer's pictureJosh Wymore

1+1: The fine art of listening + how to have a better conversation

Hey there! Here’s one leadership idea and one resource I’ve found beneficial this week:

A grapefruit sliced in half

1 idea: The fine art of listening  

I recently read a wonderful little essay by Brenda Ueland called “Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening.” Normally when I read something that resonates, I try to convey its ideas through my own words and stories. But occasionally, I come across something written so well that I think changing the wording would be a disservice. So instead of summarizing it, I’ll just quote it at length. It's worth reading slowly:

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.

This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.

Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself.

When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being recreated. Now there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too. I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let us express our thoughts and expand; and it is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts, and unexpected laughter and wisdom. That is why, when someone has listened to you, you go home rested and lighthearted.

Now this little creative fountain is in us all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination — whatever you want to call it. If you are very tired, strained, have no solitude, run too many errands, talk to too many people, drink too many cocktails, this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris. The result is you stop living from the center, the creative fountain, and you live from the periphery, from externals. That is, you go along on mere willpower without imagination.

It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.

I discovered all this about three years ago, and truly it made a revolutionary change in my life. Before that, when I went to a party I would think anxiously, “Now try hard. Be lively. Say bright things. Talk. Don’t let down.” And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.

Now before going to a party I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject. No. My attitude is, “Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.”

You can read the rest of this essay in Ueland’s book Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings.


  • Who do you find yourself not listening well to?

  • How might listening well change your relationship?

  • How might it change them as a human being?

1 resource: How to have a better conversation

Through her role at NPR, Celeste Headlee has interviewed a range of people: Nobel Prize winners, billionaires, truck drivers, and heads of state, to name a few. After thousands of hours of practice, she’s learned a thing or two about good conversations:

Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on this, things like look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you're paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it.

So I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.

There is no reason to learn how to show you're paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.

Her TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” distills her experience into 10 practical tips on how to have better conversations, even with people you don’t like. (Hint: listening well is the biggest key). It’s one of my most recommended TED Talks.


Cover of James Clear's book Atomic Habits


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