I lead workshops based on The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity to help people recover and express their passions and talents. We don’t usually make art in the course, but we do spend a lot of time listening to each other as we explore what gets in the way of living our dreams and what to do about it.
In the first session I offer a handout called “Could You Just Listen?” to set the tone for our interactions. It begins, “When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.”
Sound harsh? If so perhaps you, like me, have dispensed unsolicited advice and tried to talk people out of their feelings more than once. The author of this passage (who remains anonymous) goes on to say, “When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.”
Hmmmm…I had to roll that one around my brain a few times. After all, it’s hard to listen to someone who’s struggling and not want to help, right?
But listening is helping, as the author explains, because, “…when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling. When that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.”
Conclusion? Good listening is witnessing, with added support.
Author and theology professor David Augsburger even says that, “Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” I know that some of the most healing moments in my life have been spent with people who sat quietly beside me, opening their hearts to receive what mine had to say. Positive psychology researchers even report that people who feel listened to may enjoy better physical health.
Eager to be a better listener, I once joined a book group to study The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, by speech/language pathologist Rebecca Shafir. We met every few weeks to discuss the obstacles to listening, which include: our judgments about a speaker, our impatient desire to interrupt with our own input, speakers who monopolize conversations and, of course, our incessant internal chatter. Sometimes, even when we appear to be intently listening (maintaining eye contact, nodding our head), we may actually be composing our to-do list, formulating our reply, or thinking about anything but what the speaker is saying.
I fully admit that I can be an impatient listener. I don’t want people to waste my time or talk circles around a subject. “Cut to the chase,” I’m often thinking (and, unfortunately, sometimes saying out loud or indicating with my body language). In those instances, Shafir might tell me to imagine that the speaker is a fascinating movie character, holding my interest. I’ve tried that, with mixed results.
On the other hand, when someone is sharing deep truths and heartfelt emotion with me, I’m hooked through the final credits.
Today I’m keenly aware of how often most of us are talking at each other rather than with each other. I’ve started to use the phrase “Just let me finish…” with interrupters and I’ve stopped greeting people with “How are you?” if I don’t have time to hear the answer. Likewise, I rarely respond to that same question if I sense that there’s no room for an authentic reply.
Ironically, I’ve actually gotten so used to people not listening that I sometimes feel uncomfortable when they do. In Shafir’s book she quotes people who say that they even feel guilty when someone offers them their full attention. I find that kind of…sad.
It seems that modern attention spans have shrunk in proportion to the number of hand-held electronic devices out there. Who has time to listen when there are Tweets to read and updates to post and so many things clamoring for our attention?
And yet, as mentioned, deep listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone, and one of the most blessed gifts we can receive. It’s an opportunity for greater intimacy and connection, and aren’t we all hungering for that?
Next time someone is speaking to you, try to put down your phone, turn away from the screen, sit still and get quiet enough inside to really listen. And then, find someone who can listen to you. You may notice that you feel better afterwards, and maybe even lighter. As Canadian psychologist and change consultant Paddy Ducklow writes, “My life is cluttered, as is probably yours. When I am listened to, my life becomes somehow less cluttered.”
Sounds good to me.