Readings on Listening

Readings on Listening

“If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.” Parker J. Palmer

“We are really alive when we listen to each other, to the silences of each other as well as to the words and what lies behind the words.” Frederick Buechner

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.
And especially if it’s given from the heart.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they’re saying.  Care about it.  Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.  Most of us don’t value ourselves or our love enough to know this.  It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, “I’m so sorry,” when someone is in pain.  And meaning it.
One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted her to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them.  Subtly her pain became a story about themselves.  Eventually she stopped talking to most people.  It was just too lonely.  We connect through listening.  When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves.  When we listen, they know we care.  Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.
I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening.  In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief.  Now I just listen.  When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.
This simple thing has not been that easy to learn.  It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young.  I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer.  A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.
Rachel Naomi Remen, from her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life…When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other…and it is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. …Well, it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.  Brenda Ueland

Listening is not passive.  It’s hard work to listen with an open heart rather than an analyzing mind.  It requires putting aside judgment, categorization, and evaluation and instead just hearing the story that is told, and the feelings behind it.  Some people say they can feel themselves shift from their minds to hearts when they are listening.  Some describe deep listening as a sacred experience.
It is the mind’s nature to think, and so even the most experienced listeners repeatedly will slip into judging and analyzing.  When you realize that this has happened, gently set aside your thinking for later and open your heart.  Buddhist meditators, who face the same problem, speak of treating the mind like a beloved but sometimes inappropriate child who wants to show off to guests.  ‘Not now, sweetie,’ says the kind parent.  ‘You go and play and we will join you in a bit.’  Similarly, when we are listening and notice that we are commenting to ourselves about what is being said, we can tell our minds, ‘This is not the time for analysis.  I just need to hear this story.’
Most people need a few experiences of simply being listened to before they can really believe that just listening is enough.  In time, we discover that to be listened to is a way of being loved, and that listening is a way of being loving.”
Christine Robinson & Alicia Hawkins, Heart to Heart

We can translate ‘deep listening’ as compassionate listening, that is, to listen with compassion, or to listen with love. We hear with one aim only; we don’t listen in order to criticize, to blame, to correct the person who is speaking or to condemn the person. We only listen with one aim, and that is to relieve the suffering of the one we are listening to.
Thich Nhat Hanh

“Imagine an America that had been listening to the voices in the Middle East. Not interviews with military consultants on CNN, but traumatized Palestinian children, the Israeli whose family disappeared in a bomb blast, the castigated Afghan widow, the Iraqi father who cannot find or afford medicine for his daughter. What if we had been listening for years, no, let’s say decades? What if we had listened to the people who pay the price for oligarchic oil politics, instead of those benefiting from it? What country would we be? How much oil would we use? How stingy would our foreign aid be? Who would we believe in the media?
But we can’t truly listen to people far away. The people we can listen to are the people nearby who will talk to us. They are our children, neighbors, coworkers, spouses, or the sorrowful person we avoid on the street. We can practice by squatting on our haunches on a cold night and listening to a homeless person. The whole story.
What happens when we don’t listen? The main reason medical patients file malpractice suits is not because they believe their physicians are incompetent, but because they feel the doctors don’t listen. The failure of communication leads to disappointment, anger, and frustration. That can lead to hostility and arrogance on the part of the practitioner, which inflames the patient’s anger further. If this keeps up, the patient reaches for a lawyer.
The resentment that results when people are not listened to, especially those in need or suffering arises everywhere. Listening is as different from hearing as a live animal is from a fur coat. Listening is generosity. Listening is consciousness. Listening is alive. Functionally, listening allows us to see a world we don’t know, to understand experiences we haven’t had, to reframe or drop a belief long held. It creates distinctions and it is from these distinctions that we create new possibilities.
The language of war is the language of conflation. Concepts and distinctions are fused, nuances erased. Conflated, bellicose words masquerade as truth and dodge uncertainty. There is only good and evil. There is only us or them. Alternatives disappear, possibilities sink from sight.
Listening is the opposite experience. It doesn’t judge, know, or argue. When we listen to people, our own language softens. Listening may be the cardinal act of giving. It is a silent quality. I think it is the source of peace.
Paul Hawken from Orion Magazine

The earth has its music for those who will listen.” George Santayana

“For a word to be spoken… there must be silence. Before, and after.”  Ursula K. LeGuin

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” David Augsberger

Longer Texts

Dave Isley, the founder of Story Corps speaks with Krista Tippett in this On Being interview.

Also from On Being, a young man decides to walk around the United States and just listen.

From The Listening Center, a list of tips for better listening.


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