Listening Well

Many years ago, a colleague and I taught a program at the Omega Institute on the subject of quality listening. Even though we were aware that such listening cannot be accomplished solely from an intellectual perspective, we emphasized features involved in deep listening from a left-brain perspective over those attributed to teaching from a right-brain perspective. That is to say we drew from our mind rather than from our heart. It’s where we were in the development of our own spiritual and social maturation, and not surprising, since we each brought our backgrounds as the source from which we would draw for our teaching. Mine was that of a lawyer (need I say more) and my colleague was a consultant for corporations (solutions expected).

Today I imagine we would teach a very different course, drawing on our understanding of the subject from an inspirational orientation rather than an intellectual framework. The rules we teased out of the subject matter were accurate then and are equally applicable now, although the product today would emphasize qualities such as quiet, appreciation, inquiry, innocence, and openness. Here’s a list

drawn from our notes created twenty years ago of elements that when practiced will put you on a path toward deep listening. Those qualities still apply today – but our current approach would be to envelop those qualities into a heart-centered framework.

Pay Attention. There are several ways to listen and in time we employ them all. For example, too often we hear the words and instantly form judgments without giving the speaker time and room to express his/her viewpoint.

We can pay attention only sporadically, either because the subject matter or the speaker doesn’t fully engage us or we are unwilling to make the commitment on our part to overcome those limitations. And of course we can be focused and attentive, absorbing every word as a gift from the speaker to us.

Be Fully Engaged. Is our body open and leaning closer to the speaker, or are we closed down, hands crossed over our body, leaning away, almost as though the experience was toxic? Are we looking directly at the speaker or do our eyes wander, indicating a lapse in our attention? Sometimes we’re not paying attention because we are multi-tasking. When we split our time between attending to the speaker and checking our emails, reviewing our attire, anticipating the next speaker, looking at the clock with frequency, or making lists of items to buy for dinner, we may think we’re being efficient, but in truth we are not giving either task appropriate coverage.

Relationship Between Topic and Context. Some items are charged, no matter who the person is that expresses the subject being approached. Some subjects are charged because of who the speaker is in relations to us. The speaker might be a notable figure we’ve come to hear, an adult child addressing a major life event, a spouse or an ex-spouse talking about a relationship coming apart or coming together, your employer, and on and on. We need to make sure the speaker doesn’t blindside us when a deeply personal subject is about to be introduced.  Little good comes out of conversations on loaded subjects when the person introducing the subject does so without taking into account where you are physically when the subject is introduced (a restaurant, private dinner, at the end of a workday), the time available to fully engage the subject, a “heads up” requesting a time and place when that engagement might occur, or whether other people will be involved in the conversation and whether their inclusion will enhance or limit full engagement.

Focusing on the Speaker’s Subject. Do we adequately convey our interest in the subject matter? Are we able to express our enthusiasm for the subject by such phrases as “tell me more,” “that’s fascinating,” “let me describe what you’ve just said to make sure I’m hearing accurately.”

Mixed Messages. Our voice may appear to be saying “yes, yes, yes….” but our eyes are conveying “no, no, no…?” Our voice (its timber, speed, loudness, tone) conveys strong messages. Are they consistent with our agreement or disagreement or are we sending the speaker mixed messages?

Sabotaging Messages. Here are three examples of how the listener can destructively steal the spotlight: (i) Rescuers are people who interrupt the speaker to tell them what needs to be done. The speaker doesn’t get the chance to fully express the points to be made and the person on center stage has been hijacked and taken over by the Rescuer; (ii) Victims are listeners who turn the conversation back on themselves by informing the speaker that the listener’s issues are far worse than the speaker’s; (iii) Interrogators take over conversations and require the speaker to defend his/her actions rather than let the conversation evolve at the speaker’s pace.

Those are the guidelines that people have developed and modified to improve negotiations, increase communication, promote healing, temper rashness, develop civility, and allow for a balance that helps us find common ground. Those benefits constitute the techniques to be used – they are not the subject to be resolved.  By themselves the scope of their reach is limited. Some listening techniques will thrive in the intimacy of one’s home while others need to be negotiated in a more formal atmosphere, with advance notice of time, place, and issues. The process of deep listening focuses on making certain that all parties fully understand what is to be resolved and what it will take for their needs to be satisfied.

There is a sharp distinction between the  “how” and “why” of deep listening. Consider, for example, the following story. A father who was a professional fundraiser for a non-profit organization was approached by his daughter who was just entering her senior year in high school. “Dad” she said one night, “our high school is having a fund raiser. I want to raise more money than any senior. Show me how to do it.” The father was delighted, poured hours into the project and, indeed his daughter raised more money than any other student.

Fast forward to the end of her senior year. The daughter has just graduated from high school when a letter appeared in her mailbox that she received as a recent high school graduate. It was a fund raising request. She read it and was furious. “Look Dad”’ she exclaimed. “I’m barely an alum and already they’re asking me for money. How disgusting.” It was then that the father realized the mistake he had made.  “I had taught her how to raise money” he shared. “But I failed to teach her why.”

Earlier I outlined a roadmap for deep listening and the expected outcomes if the suggestions made were followed. The technique is designed to resolve disputes between people. I believe it can also be applied to different settings and how we might learn about ourselves from deep listening and the world that orbits around us. Recently I came across a Sunday comic strip called The Family Circus that appeared in our local newspaper. The strip showed three young children, outside their house, while snow fell around them. The oldest of the children said to the others “When it snows I like to listen to the quiet.”

That is the essence of deep listening.

Our wise little figure knows that if silence is all around us, we hear the sounds of nature, snow falling, our small place in a large firmament, our own heart beating, our own breath expressing, our own self observing. It is hard to do. As we try and quiet down, our mind jumps to all sorts of subjects. Meditation is one tool that we can use to quiet our mind and to accept the noises in our head as just noises. Our active mind often stands in the way of our ability to listen to the quiet. It’s like doing math puzzles in our head while walking through an old growth forest. The puzzles distract our minds from observing the larger beauty all around us – and the puzzles serve no particular purpose. We see the universe as a mind dominant world instead of seeing it as a heart centered planet.

We are listening for the essence of who we are. As we discover the parts of ourselves that are sacred, we listen for what is sacred in all living things. We long to be seen – but we put up filters to mask that essence because we are afraid it will not be good enough. I ask you “Good enough for what?” We don’t hear the silence because we don’t listen for it. We don’t listen for it because we don’t value it. We don’t value it because we don’t believe it will serve us. And we don’t believe it will serve us because we don’t understand it. Life pulses through us and through every living thing. As we sense our own pulse of life, we become more attuned to the pulse in every creature and every plant in the universe.

The poet David Wagoner writes

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.

…..Stand still. The forest knows

where you are. You must let it find you.

Was there a time when you discovered the silence in nature and how profound that silence could be? I remember a day when my daughter Amy and I were up in the country taking a short walk from our house into the woods. She had just turned six and was beginning to discover the variety of riches that nature provided. She was skittish around bugs, so we traveled over some thinly made roads that provided a path we took. We came upon a small waterfall and listened to the sound made by the water splashing on the rocks below. We listened some more. And we listened again. Fear of bugs had disappeared as we were both mesmerized by the eddies the water made as it hurtled between rocks. The sounds from below filled our space, and we leaned in together, just observing one of nature’s gifts and finding it so satisfying. When I think back over the four decades we have shared, that small, simple, and spontaneous discovery we made together is a highlight for me of a moment fully-lived.

In Mark Nepo’s book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, he begins a chapter he titles WANDERING AUTHENTICALLY with the following quote from Wendell Berry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work;

and that when we no longer know which way to go,

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

I referenced earlier some terminology that I would use to process effective listening when we are listening to learn about our own life’s journey. In summary, I would pay attention to four qualities: Being Open and Curious; Quieting Our Mind; Following a Path with Heart; Using the Greeting Namaste.

Being Open and Curious. These attributes are just two sides of the same coin. We can pass through this lifetime saying “no” to experiences we haven’t tried when opportunities are presented to us, or we can embrace those opportunities as gifts we haven’t yet opened. When “no” is our instinctual response, we need to acknowledge the influence on our behavior that is grounded in our upbringing, our role models, and our overriding view that opportunities are filled with risk and risks are to be avoided whenever possible. Yes is a learned response that appears in a variety of activities from relationships to improvisational theatre. It honors the person to whom the “yes” is directed and invites us to deepen that relationship by trusting that the unknown can be explored together or, if that is too big a step, by at least neutralizing any toxicity we might have created at an earlier date. We are in this lifetime together, each in our own way, searching to fulfill our potential. Giving a hand to help another fulfill their potential helps us fill our own.

Quieting Our Mind. Brain teasers are the 21st century’s response to resisting dementia. They help us fire up our synapses and stay engaged. As an alternative to succumbing to life as a television junkie it is to be applauded. But it is certainly not the only alternative to retaining an active mind. Meditation has been around for over 2,500 years. It requires that we learn to sit on our cushion in silence. Entering into silence can be a sacred act. Our mind slowly quiets itself, images come and go, words, arguments, shopping lists all find expression, as we seek to embrace silence. As we learn to let these distractions come and go, we become attuned to what remains. We discover that what remains is the pathway to self-fulfillment. Our problems don’t go away, our distractions don’t disappear, our disappointments don’t end. But they can, in context, be understood as part of the human experience.

Following a Path with Heart. In the early 1960’s, a series of books were written by Carlos Castaneda about his apprenticeship with Don Juan Matus, a Mexican shaman. In his first book on this subject, Castaneda quotes his mentor:

Look at every path slowly and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young and my blood was too vigorous for me too understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.

A path with heart is a soul-centered approach to living, to uncovering, to discovering, to exploring, the potential for a full and satisfying life. As we begin life, pathways are available to us. We may choose one of many. Or we may choose many that grow from one. But the path selected must have meaning for us so it is worth the cuts and bruises we will undergo on our journey. When I was a young adult I needed to select a college, a career, a graduate school. Only later did I realize that some of my choices kept me frozen in place while others offered a level of freedom, perhaps even rebellion, that tempted me even though I could only see a bit of the path before it twisted and turned beyond my vision. Something attracted me to this path and its secular spirituality – and thank goodness for pursuing goals different from my upbringing, for it is those paths that have imbued meaning into my life and allowed me to share those belief with others as a guide to their own paths.

Using the Greeting Namaste - a Sanskrit word that captures the idea that the divine is the same in me as it is in you. Often used as a form of greeting for which the translation is “I bow to the divine in you.” If we consider how to conduct deep listening that includes a heart-centered approach, greeting people by saying Namaste (even if you only say it to yourself) is a way of meeting that honors the soul of the person you greet.

Those are the tools we used twenty years ago to reach a goal– and the tools we use today. For me, they are not refinements – they are carvings that have taken a lifetime to shape.  The twists and turns I have taken seem akin to they way that roads are carved into mountains - by building switchbacks. Only by arriving did I see the journey taken. I trust I am not at the road’s end – only at another turn into the unknown as I continue to search for the unknowable.

George Kaufman ©

January 2018

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