Each spring and fall, I lead support groups designed to help people recover and express their passions and creativity. The process involves a fair amount of personal disclosure, as students identify their desires and explore what’s in the way of living them.
In the first session, I distribute 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.”
That may sound harsh to those of us who’ve occasionally dispensed unsolicited advice and tried to talk people out of their feelings. 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.”
Hmmm. I had to roll that one around in my brain several times when I first read it. 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.”
As I’m learning in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, good listening can benefit relationships of all kinds, workplace dynamics, and even physical health. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers cites active listening as a growth experience for both listeners and speakers. “When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on,” Rogers says. “It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”
I know that some of the most healing moments in my own life were spent with people who sat quietly beside me, opening their hearts to receive what mine had to share.
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 pathologist Rebecca Shafir. We met weekly to discuss obstacles to listening, which typically include our judgments about a speaker, our impatient desire to respond, and, of course, our incessant internal chatter. Sometimes, even when we appear to be 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, especially if I feel that someone is spinning tales or talking circles around a subject. “Cut to the chase,” I’m often thinking in such moments (and, unfortunately, sometimes saying with body language). In these instances, Shafir might tell me to imagine that the speaker is a fascinating movie character. 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.
These days, I’m keenly aware of how often people talk at each other rather than with each other. I frequently feel rushed in conversations and hear myself saying to chronic interrupters, “What I’m trying to say is …” I’ve actually stopped greeting people with “How are you?” if I don’t have time to hear the answer. “Good to see you!” feels more authentic.
Ironically, I think I’ve gotten so used to people not listening attentively that I sometimes feel uncomfortable when they do. I find that kind of … sad.
Deep, empathic listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone, and one of the greatest gifts we can receive. It’s an opportunity for greater intimacy and connection, and aren’t we all hungering for that?
It could simply be that our attention spans have shrunk in proportion to the number of screens and smartphones out there. We’re expressing all over the place, but is anyone really listening? Tweets, texts, sound bites, and instant messages fuel our desire for instant gratification, but they leave little room for cultivating the inner stillness that’s required of a good listener.
It’s still my intention to get better at listening, and so I will keep practicing. I believe it will make me a calmer person, which can only help, well, everything. And if I want to be deeply heard, which I believe I do, it’s only right that I give others the same opportunity.