When You Wish to Listen in a Healing Way

by James E. Miller

When you listen to what someone is saying, you’re likely at times to rely more on your eyes than your ears. Studies show that well over half of the meaning of spoken messages comes from that which can only be seen: how the speaker looks and moves. About a third of the spoken message comes from what the ear can pick up: the tone of voice, the rhythm of the words, and the rate of speaking. Only a small amount of the message comes from the words themselves.

Seeing is instrumental for hearing in this elemental way: lip reading. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re almost always reading other people’s lips as they speak. Your ears depend upon your eyes to help take in what is spoken as well as to confirm what is heard.

Even more important is the role your eyes play in interpreting what others are really saying beneath their words as you pay attention to their faces. With its intricate weave of muscles, the human face can display more than 8,000 expressions, and it can do so in a fraction of a second. And the face can make these displays for a mere fraction of a second, almost faster than can be seen. Almost faster, but not quite, for your eyes do catch these nuances and pass them on to be received as information for your brain. Your eyes automatically record the other person’s gestures and gait, their poses and postures, and send all those along to be added to the interpretation.

Of course, no part of a speaker’s body is more expressive than the eyes. That’s one reason why listeners spend so much time looking at those colorful spheres.

Herman Melville was right: “The eyes are the gateway to the soul.” Many times your eyes can fathom what your ears can only hope to.


James E. Miller has written about twenty-two specific things a person can do to be the best listener possible to one in their care in his book The Art of Listening in a Healing Way. It is the companion book to his The Art of Being a Healing Presence: A Guide for Those in Caring Relationships. Learn more about this work, and other works, here.