The Art of Listening

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on December 11, 2016.

The following story is told of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at White House receptions and was tired of the small talk and flattering comments he received from White House guests.

Roosevelt decided that the guests were never really listening to what he was saying. One day at a reception he decided to try a little experiment. As each guest arrived and shook the president’s hand he smiled politely and said pleasantly, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”

As Roosevelt had anticipated, the guests responded with such comments as, “Marvelous!” “Keep up the good work!” “We are proud of you!” God bless you, sir!”

It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his guest actually listened to what Roosevelt was saying. Maintaining his diplomatic décor, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

We live in a busy world that competes for our attention, grabbing at our ears in the name of commerce, news, and distraction. Will Rogers had this to say about a very contentious environment for good listening. He said: Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens and then everybody disagrees. So, one barrier to listening is the sheer volume of chatter that we often encounter as we make our way in the world. Some of that chatter comes from our own interior or virtual world. For example, we may find ourselves in planning mode rather than in listening mode. Or, not-listening may be a defense mechanism used to screen out unwanted conversation or noise. And if our environment gets too loud for our brain to handle, it is guaranteed that the brain will screen or delete aversive or over-stimulating inputs.

Another barrier to good listening is the very human impulse to impose our way of thinking onto a conversation. We may do it reflexively, or because we genuinely feel we are right. These may be times when listening is really important – because there may be conflict or misunderstanding. But rather than being careful listeners, we may be thinking about what we will say to enhance our position and prove our point. There’s a cartoon in which Henry the 8th is in marriage therapy with one of his wives. The session doesn’t appear to be going well. The therapist is saying: “You say off with her head, but what I hear is ‘I feel neglected.'”

The therapist really isn’t on target, falling back on a formulaic response to try and smooth over tension. It’s not uncommon to interject our own interpretation or viewpoint without really understanding what another person is actually saying. We need to allow for the possibility of disagreement. Healthy disagreement requires a safe environment that allows for diversity of view. If we are going to disagree we should at least know the other person’s point of view, what they are saying, so that we know how it is that we disagree.

A good environment for listening includes feelings of acceptance, security, and safety. Feeling stressed can make us feel defensive, which can promote smoothing, aggression, or withdrawal. All of those responses can make good listening more of a challenge.

Getting back to my fictional therapist of Henry VIII, at some point he realizes that he is losing connection with Henry, and decides it might be useful to bring Henry’s wife into the conversation. So, the therapist says, “Henry, all relationships are built on good listening. Listening is a two-way communication – it takes two people who are willing to attend to what the other has to say.” The therapist pauses and turns to Ann Boleyn, who has a bit of reputation for being sassy. He makes a therapeutic request. “Ann, can you please tell Henry your response to everything he’s had to say today?” Ann looks at Henry and says, “I’m sorry Henry dear, I wasn’t listening, can you repeat what you said, beginning with the day we got married?”

So, a quality of listening is to not project or try and control what the other person is saying. And after giving up control, the next step is active listening – hearing what the person is trying to communicate. That doesn’t mean we stop having our own opinions, but it does mean that we suspend those opinions if they interfere with hearing what the other person is saying. If we are listening well, we should be able to repeat or paraphrase what is said.

Steve Martin has the following suggestion for people in relationships: there is now a sophisticated communication technique used between men and women that eases marital strain and opens wide the doors of understanding between the sexes. This new technique, developed by psychologists and sociologists, is called “listening.” It will be interesting to see if the new technique lasts or whether it will disappear and be replaced by older, more traditional methods, such as “leaving the room.”

Now, I’m going to suggest that strategic retreat could make sense. It takes two people to be in a listening conversation, and there are times when neither side is listening. Setting aside the conversation for a later time can be an act of generosity.

In any case, if we’re being honest, paying attention all the time can become taxing. Obviously we can’t give our full attention to everything, we’d get worn out. There may be times when we are tired and check out a bit. There may be times when we’re not in a receptive mood. There may be times when our personal resources are depleted. Listening is not mandatory when you’re fatigued or when someone is bending your ear. There may be times when we feel we need to invoke the magic words of equanimity: I have to go now. I mention that with a light heart knowing that for many of us the goal is to improve our listening skills. But we’re not bound to every listening situation out of a creed to be more spiritual. We have permission to bow out and move on with the flow of our experience.

Part of the art of listening is knowing what deserves our attention, and then having the intention to become engaged with our moments of listening. Sometimes that requires that we make space in our lives so that we have time to listen. In other words, we are scheduling our lives and attending to our priorities in a way that allows for quality time with another person – either in connected silence or engaged conversation.

Steve Martin had an additional insight into the process of communication: Some people have a way with words, and other people…not have way. So, when someone not have way, maybe we need to give them a little more space for expressing themselves. Or, maybe they have way, but it’s just a little slower – bringing pauses into the conversation. Garrison Keillor said that when a shy person is in conversation with a fast talker, they go silent waiting for the pause that doesn’t happen. Keillor states: We shy persons need to write a letter now and then, or else we’ll dry up and blow away.

It’s difficult to listen if you can’t listen during an active pause – the silence between words – the silence that generates a deeper communion as we feel our way toward expression. When we can listen and speak from the depth of being, we are more likely to discover words of clarity and joy. I’m suggesting that it is possible to communicate through a deep sense of connection.

As much as seems possible, we can intend to be more open to those we contact or connect with. Here are a few questions we might ask ourselves to help us to engage in mindful listening. Can I let myself be changed by what I hear? Can I listen with interest, curiosity, friendliness, and harmony? Can I listen to my own reactions as well? Listening heals and nurtures those that we’re with, and it wakes us up too.

Good listening is both an act of love and an act of opening up to the truths of another. We’re listening not only to what a person is saying, but also what they are trying to say – actively discovering what’s really being said and responding from engaged intelligence.

Listening can lead to a real sense of connection. When we can listen with interest, curiosity, friendliness, and harmony – there is more likely to be a depth of connection. Listening can provide healing. Listening attention can give us the moments of our lives back. Listening attention can fill the space of discord with communal participation and regard. The goal might be to bring a listening attention to the situations that touch our lives. We could begin with our closest relationships. It might be useful set aside times during the day that might become available for deep listening. In some ways, bringing a listening attention to our close communities may seem easier, because there is a built-in structure for the times of interaction. Next, if we’d like, we can bring a listening attention to our peer and work groups, and larger communities of both travel and shared living. Bringing a listening attention to the widening circles of our lives awakens the potential of harmonious living.

The key to good communication is openness and empathy – a spirit of inquiry that allows us to see outside our impulse or baseline perception so that we are not unnecessarily putting words into someone’s mouth.

Love the interaction — listening, responding, setting the path forward. Love the effort that you’re willing to make. Love the part of you that is whole and willing to listen. Listening can be a generous act. The person you are listening to may or may not be aware that you are fully engaged, but on some level something communicates your integrity.

Listening with mindful awareness is sometimes called deep listening. Deep listening connects us with our sacred selves – the Namaste between us. Here’s a poetic discovery of deep listening by Mary Oliver. The poem is titled:
Rumi

When Rumi went into the tavern           
I followed.
I heard a lot of crazy talk
and a lot of wise talk.

But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.

When Rumi left the tavern
I followed.
I don’t mean just to pick at
such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening

until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
of roses.

We may need to be intentional with how often or with whom we practice deep listening, but hopefully we are engaging with genuine listening every day – whether that is to a specific person or with empathy to the movement of the world around you. We know this matters — our ability to be open, receptive, and engaged in an honest and curious way. On some level we probably know that good listening means we give up the need to be in control. Becoming conscious of our intention may guide us to a more understanding heart. This is easier to do when a situation or encounter flows in a gratifying or intimate way, and much more difficult when a situation feels off-center, conflicted, or aversive. It is good practice to gain skills with listening in both easy and in more difficult situations.

St. Benedict has a suggestion, that we “Listen with the ear of the heart.”
The poet Mark Nepo puts it this way:
To listen is to lean in softly
With a willingness to be changed
By what we hear
Both of these poetic phrases suggest letting go of control and opening to the qualities of the heart.

Here’s the take-home message: when we are listened to, we feel connected. When we’re not listened to, we feel separate. Listening is what brings us closer together. Listening is what makes love and connection possible.
Contemplative moment:
Perhaps we can take a contemplative moment to explore listening. First, for about ten seconds or so, I’m going to suggest that we just listen to whatever sounds are present. Some sounds may be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Of course, we prefer pleasant sounds. Is it possible to engage unpleasant sounds without reacting or judging?

Listening to another person is very similar – paying attention and being willing to listen without judgment. When we hear a sound that is out of our control, such as a plane overhead, we don’t try to fix the sound. And if we hear someone say something we don’t want to hear, we may not need to change or fix it. Maybe you can let go or let be. Not always.

After a brief listening silence, I will suggest that you imagine listening to someone while putting your own agenda on pause. Or, perhaps you can consider if there are moments in your life where conscious or deeper listening makes practical, emotional, or spiritual sense. Right action is more likely to follow a moment of listening presence.

So, at the sound of the bell you can, if you’d like, begin by just listening to whatever sound is present. After about ten seconds, I’ll suggest that you imagine listening to someone while putting your own agenda on pause so that you are fully present. Or, consider if there are moments in your life where it could be of benefit for you to apply the skills of listening. Of course, you can use this time to simply relax if you’d like.

Bell: Just Listen…(at least ten seconds, then):

Now, can you imagine a moment or situation in your life where you might want to be a better listener? Can you imagine what it might be like to listen to another person while putting your own agenda on pause? Imagine yourself clearly perceiving what it is another person is communicating.
Can you imagine listening with kindness?  End Bell

I’d like to end with a poem by John Fox:
When Someone Deeply Listens To You

When someone deeply listens to you     
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you,
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Thank you for this time together

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