Communications Skills: Are You a Good Listener?


By Michael Joe Murphy

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

That quote from Mother Teresa haunts me.

Yes, I appreciate solitude occasionally. But I fear loneliness. I desperately want to be loved. And there’s not a day that I’m not conscious about living in a lonely world, a lonely city.

Does anyone else sense a poverty of communication? Is anyone listening? Are you?

Sometimes that poverty hits me, but for no good reason: I’m blessed with family and friends who listen – really listen – to me.

Then there’s the poverty of isolation or exclusion because of gender, race, economic dislocation, living on the streets or, in the case of my friends at The Palms on South Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, because they live in a trailer court.

The key to people feeling loved is a perception that someone really listens to them — sometimes beneath their words spoken in anxiety or anger.  Do we do a good job listening? It’s tough.

There are a gazillion websites about “how to be a good listener.” My version resides on a battered index card, circa 1975, from the superintendent of my school district in Ohio, Ed Hamsher. He spoke at a Bible study, and what he shared was practical for someone about to go to college. On the now-frayed card, he wrote:


1. Listen underneath the words.
2. Consider and reflect back what you understand to help clarify. Do not make a judgment.
3. Lead the other person to discover his or her own solution by considering the option available.
4. Permit that person to be responsible for his or her own actions.

It wasn’t many months until the wisdom borne on the index card became invaluable, in situations large and small, significant and seemingly without meaning, but all deeply important.

Knock-knock came a rapping at my dorm room door. “Murph, I slept with a girl. We didn’t use a condom. She’s Catholic, like me. What if she’s pregnant? What do we do?”

I had spilled a few beers with the guy at dorm floor parties. We had talked about the Bible, and I’d bought a copy of the Living Bible (Catholic edition) for him. But, it’s not as if I had the answer to his question. So I listened as closely as I could, and I haltingly spit back what he’d just shared:

“So, you didn’t use protection? Do you know her? What do you think you’d do? What do you think she’d want to do?”

Listen underneath the words. Check. Reflect back on what was shared. Help clarify. Check. Don’t be judgmental. Check. Let the person be responsible. Check.

There was quite a bit of listening and sharing over the next several weeks, and finally sighs of relief. There were lessons learned. That index card proved invaluable.

When I’ve been at the Community Center at the Palms on Saturdays, I’ve listened, or tried to listen, to unspoken concerns, moods, aspirations, hopes, fears.

Outside the Community Center, I’ve heard hurtful and vicious words hurled in anger by men and women on SOBT.

Inside the Community Center, I’ve listened to the prideful determination of people stepping up as leaders.  They brim with confidence and hope, wanting to make the Palms a better place to live.

I’ve listened to a soft-spoken young woman boast that she’s been working in a bistro, full time with benefits, since last April. (We both griped about Orlando’s lousy bus service.)

I’ve listened to an older woman, rapid fire, share that she’s bipolar and “intimidated.”

“No one listens,” she declared. I sat in rapt attention.

Did she know I was listening – or trying hard to listen? Did she feel as if she were important? That I understood her fears and shared her indignation about a laundry list of injustices?

Mother Teresa amplified her line about loneliness and poverty.

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, or in a trailer park on South Orange Blossom Trail. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a dorm room at Kent State University, my alma mater, or in Harvard Yard.

Wherever you are in life, listen. Without condemnation. Without judgment.

I’ll be praying for you, and the person to whom you’re listening.

May you both feel unconditional love.

Michael Joe Murphy, a volunteer for the Polis Institute, can be reached at

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.


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3 Responses to “Communications Skills: Are You a Good Listener?”

  1. Paully Says:

    Lots of truth in what you have written…..God is teachng me to be a better listener and I like the idea of listening for the underlying words.

  2. mikebeates Says:

    Great stuff Murph — Thanks! I find a huge part of my work is listening. Sometimes there is so much “noise” we have to listen for what is most important (thus the name for my blog!).
    Bless you brother!

  3. Arthur Wall Says:

    Thanks Mike. Good reporting begins with good listening. We all know how much listening is packed into scriptures. Aloha!

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