I recently watched an interview with the late Alan Rickman in which he discussed acting tips he’s learned over his career. The one that stood out to me was the importance of listening. As a young actor, he learned that every time he entered a scene, he should actively listen and respond to what he hears.

He demonstrated this technique for the interviewer, and it was magic. Even without anyone saying a word or any visible action on this impromptu set, there was electricity. Nothing could be heard except for the slightest room hum or perhaps a chair creak. But you could see the slightest darting of Alan’s eyes from side to side. When he moved his head or walked into a room, he seemed to lead with his ears.

I sometimes think there was more drama in those ten seconds of silence than in many hours on most reality TV. It gave me a clue why his iconic performances are so memorable — from Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or the inimitable Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Now I can’t help but notice how much he listens on screen. And how vivid and fully human it makes his performances.

It’s a trope to bemoan how visual modern life has become. And it’s not new, either. The Buggles have been warning us that video killed the radio star since 1979. So while it’s hardly a hot take, I want to raise the perennial reminder of how important our ears are in a world with a fetish for the Instagram-able. Learning to listen might just help us to become more fully human.


One reason listening is losing capital in our digital age is because it puts us in a receiving posture. Until very recently (historically speaking), if you wanted to hear music you would have to go find (and pay) a musician. If you wanted to hear a story you would have to hope a bard wandered through town. And you got whatever was offered. If you didn’t like what you heard, the only agency you had over your ears was to fill them with cotton or move them to a different room. The ability to capture and reproduce sound is a very new technology; on-demand libraries of streaming audio are even newer.

This means that to be fully human listeners we must practice a kind of humility that allows others to share themselves with us on their terms and at their pace. As a habitual podcast and audiobook listener, I confess I’ve found myself hunting for the 1.5x speed button in real world conversations. It’s much harder to skim with our ears than with our eyes. No amount of swiping can get us to the next salient point.

Imagine a friend listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with YouTube set to 2x speed. She tells you she can enjoy it twice in the same time you hear it once! Does that mean she got twice the enjoyment? Doubtful. The pace has meaning.

All of this is to say that cultivating habits of listening can help us to be more engaged, more connected human beings. We should strive to cultivate the posture of Samuel, who heard a voice in the night and responded, Here I am” and Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3: 410).

Listening is hard work. It requires humility and patience. But imagine how much differently the myriad of mobile phone videos of tense exchanges on the street or in the supermarket might have gone if our initial response was, Talk to me, I’m listening,” instead of quickly uploading the altercation to shame and expose one another in our gawking world.

Samuel cultivated a posture of listening to the Lord. We too can form habits of listening, starting in prayer. By learning to hear, Samuel was reflecting the character of the God who called him. This is the God who heard even the inaudible cries of Samuel’s mother outside the tent of meeting (1 Samuel 1:12). Jesus promises us that when we hear His voice, we will live (John 18:21).

And as we recover the fading art of listening and, like Alan Rickman’s acting lesson, learn to lead with our ears, we might find that even the people who seem the least like us are just as human as we are. They deserve to be heard on their own terms, not muted with cotton or hurried with a 2x button. As we recognise the full humanity in each other, we find our own.