The Power of Simply Listening

I have a pet peeve. For me, it’s like the sound of nails scraping a chalkboard: people who talk and talk about themselves and don’t inquire about others. Drives me batty. My mother trained me early not to go on and on about myself, but to take an interest in others. It wasn’t hard for me. Like her, I’m innately curious about people: their backgrounds and experiences, their fears and desires. It’s my natural tendency to inquire about others before sharing much about myself. Besides, I like to know who I’m dealing with before I show my cards.

But there are times when my politeness and curiosity in social situations can leave me feeling kind of isolated. I end up knowing a lot about the people I’m talking to, while they know little about me. If they don’t inquire, I’m apt to not share all that much. In my experience, most people prefer to talk. Fewer like to listen. Since I seem to lack the energy to compete for airtime, I let the ones who need to hear themselves talk go right ahead. I save deeper sharing for those genuinely interested in—and capable of—deeper listening.

But recently, with some ground rules creating a safe container, I participated in a Share Circle at Kripalu as part of my R&R Retreat. “This practice is one of the oldest, richest teachings of Swami Kripalu and yet the simplest, because there’s nothing to do but be present,” says Kripalu faculty member Izzy Lenihan, a life, career, and wellness coach, who led my Share Circle. “Conscious communication—deep listening and clear speaking—helps us avoid the verbal misunderstandings that lead to confusion and separation. It helps us build trust in self and others.”

Izzy impressed upon us three simple Share Circle ground rules before we began:

I means that that all statements are made in the first person. “I notice, I feel, I want, I need, I am aware of, which allows us to take responsibility for and ownership of our own thoughts and feelings,” Izzy explains. Rather than generalize with statements like, “You know, you feel scared when you lose your job,” or “Sometimes you don’t know how to help aging parents,” which place distance between you and your feelings, Izzy encouraged us to own our experience, as in: “I’m feeling scared because I lost my job,” or “Sometimes I don’t know how to help my aging parents.”

N is for no cross-talking (interrupting) and no fixing other people’s problems or saving them from their difficulties. “Can we really be present and listening when we’re busy comparing, judging, or trying to figure out a way to help, fix, or save the person talking from their discomfort?” Izzy asks. The Share Circle is about “honoring each voice as we would want ours to be honored,” she says.

C is for confidentiality. “The speaker needs to know that what is said out loud will be safe,” Izzy says. “Safe environments support trust. Trust encourages openness. Openness inspires more sharing and connection.”

One by one, with these simple ground rules in mind, the participants in my Share Circle—all strangers to each other—began opening up. I was taken by how quickly people moved to the heart of the matter when they knew they weren’t going to be interrupted, judged, or fixed. One young woman revealed that she’s at an age when people frequently ask when she’s going to get married and have children. Many of her friends are going down that road, she said, and she compares herself to them, worrying about what others think of her single status. Another woman revealed that her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren had moved in with her and her husband for a while, and it hadn’t worked out. Another cried as she spoke of having to put her father in a nursing home. I shared recent difficulties in my primary relationship that had me feeling rattled. After each of us finished speaking, we were encouraged to say, “Thank you”—and nothing more—to the person who had shared.

We might think we’re not doing anything constructive in a conversation if someone shares a problem and we don’t offer up a solution or a new perspective, or at least sympathize and share a similar problem of our own—but there’s a tremendous amount to be said for just offering others the gift of our attention.

“Lately, on a few occasions, my teenage boys have mentioned how easy it is to talk to me,” Izzy says. “I know it’s been a direct result of bringing this practice home. I’ve stopped, as best I can, trying to solve every challenge they share. As a result, I experience that they sometimes share a lot more than I need to hear!”

At the end of our Share Circle, Izzy asked us if it was easier for us to listen or to share. I said that it’s typically easier for me to listen, but added that, when I step out of my comfort zone and share more of myself with others more often, I feel more connected and less isolated. Likewise, it appeared that the natural talkers in the group realized that, if they listened more, they’d ultimately feel more heard in return, leading them to feel more connected to others, too.

Conscious communication. Give and take. It works.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please email editor@kripalu.org.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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