In his writing from the second century, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks about the importance of self-awareness, being present in every moment, and learning to view others through new perspectives which build empathy with other people. Combining these ideas in a simple thought, Aurelius wrote, “Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.” In this short sentence, he is encouraging us to practice all three of his main tenants, and to apply them specifically in conversation. He does not continue on to explain the benefits of actively listening to what others say, nor does he expand on his thoughts in this passage to explain the downfall of failing to build empathy with others, but throughout his book he reminds us the importance of all of these areas, and he challenges the reader to see the importance of what he discusses.
Being present in a conversation means that one is more focused on what the other person is saying than their own thoughts or what is happening around them. Listening intently involves not just focus, but communication through both verbal and non-verbal expressions as we demonstrate our engagement and ask more probing questions to better understand the speaker. It is a practice which involves intention and self-awareness as much as mental focus. If we do not recognize our behavior and if we lack the determination to attend to every work that is said to us, then we will not build the focus needed to truly connect and listen well.
What I really appreciate about this quick quote from Aurelius is the idea of empathy that is implicitly expressed by the emperor. Focusing on what is said in a conversation is an excellent skill, but without empathy we become more like a lawyer than a close friend to the person who is speaking. If we do not put ourselves in the mindset of the individual speaking, and if we do not try to understand their perspective, then we may just be preparing our thoughts while they are speaking, building a defense to our own point of view and perspective. Taking the time during a conversation to truly understand the other by being in the speaker’s mind will help us connect with people in a more profound way, and it will help us have a richer understanding of how other people interpret the world around them.