Isn’t it amazing how two people can sit together and have a lively conversation but still remain utterly alone, alienated from one another?

Most has experienced this at one point or another. We’ve all heard that dreaded phrase, “No, you aren’t listening to what I’m saying!” And yet, we’ve all continued on not listening. Instead, we choose to wait until someone is done speaking so that we can jump in with the self-proclaimed more interesting thing that we have to say.

In today’s world of constant media saturation, it can be hard to distinguish between listening and hearing. The ping of a notification, the ding of a passing bicycle and a garbled announcement at the train station: are we listening to these things or are we just hearing them? We are making a case for listening — for responding to the meaning of noises around us rather than mindlessly responding to a sound.

It’s not that hearing is inherently bad. In fact, there are times when you have to prioritise hearing over listening. When you walk down a busy street, noises, signals and general information wash over you. If you were to listen to everything that presented itself to you, you would drown. So, you don’t. You filter out the noise instead, leaving you free to think without having to take on anything unnecessary.

Hearing is a survival tactic that’s not always appropriate for every situation. When we find ourselves in a social situation, hopefully, survival is not the only desired outcome. But listening is not only about conversation. We listen to music, podcasts, and our inner voice. We seek out these experiences to connect with the meaning or intent behind them, and we can only do that by listening. More than anything, listening is about being present.

This presence is necessary when we are taking part in an interaction, a give-and-take. When you’re only hearing, your mind can wander wherever it pleases because you’re hidden behind a mental barrier that isolates you from the world. Listening, though, is a mode of being that considers not just what you can hear, but also what you feel. In this way we empty ourselves and reach out to the world.

Unfortunately, no amount of imagery can accurately convey the shape of listening because, in the end, listening takes the form of a blank page. So, it would be better to say that in order to listen you must hold yourself back so that the world and the ideas around you can fill you as text fills a blank page. Really listening is about leaving space within yourself so that you can take on what others are feeling or thinking. Once filled, you are better equipped to engage with the world or another person on equal footings. You can open yourself up after spending so much time hiding our attention away from a hostile world. You can be with others. You can talk to others. You can understand them. You can actually listen to what they’re saying.

Are you listening?