Listening: The Supreme Skill
Listening is an act of surrender. - Brian Eno
Listening is the powerful, soothing agent of all communication. Listening is the best tool there is to lower anxiety, diminish division, and open into sameness, into togetherness. Listening will help almost anyone who is triggered to calm down. The deeply beautiful and profound thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi says, “Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Listening is a gateway into that open field.
Nobody listens well without first deciding to. At least, I never do. When I do decide to listen, I make a choice to put my own thoughts and perceptions on pause, empty out, and open up my senses to take in the other person. I cross over, if only for a few minutes, into their world.
I remember the first time I decided to listen to someone who was upset, rather than trying to get them to calm down. I don’t remember the exact details of what had happened, just that we were on a camping trip and it was cold. Something had gone wrong, and my friend was pitching a fit, as they say. I recall just how mad she was, the intensity in her face and voice, her dark, pinched eyebrows, her breath puffing outrage mixed with a plea for me to understand why she was so upset.
My first impulse was to tell her it was OK; everything would be all right. Then it occurred to me that she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to hear anything. She wanted to be heard; otherwise, she probably wouldn’t have been shouting. I told myself to relax and see this outburst as just more of the bad weather, and I started listening to what she was saying. I distinctly remember the warm sensation of letting go move through me. Somehow, I managed to drop my wish for things to be different—for the weather to be different, for her to be different. Instead, I went with sameness and found a willingness to listen and to see the world for a moment like she did.
She must have felt heard because a tremendous amount of tension dissolved and she started to calm down naturally. It seems obvious now that listening was the better choice, but at the time, my habit was to assure her, to change her, to ask her to be different. I was the one who changed instead. I switched strategy, and for me, more than for her, it was a relief.
Listening has a lot in common with meditation. Both involve a clear intention of bringing attention to this moment, opening up, and letting go of the preoccupations of the self. This means that we suspend our internal thoughts and quiet the viewpoints most closely held as “mine.” We just let them go, turning off our opinions like shutting off our cell phone.
As easy as that sounds, it is more difficult to do than giving in to our viewpoints. Those silent opinions give us a reference point to hold on to. It is like having an internal handrail in the mind. I can listen to you as long as I have a sense of solidity, of safety, of security inside myself. If I give up the attachment to what I think and feel, I’m afraid I’ll drop into a kind of free fall. I’ll lose my grip on things. I won’t really know who I am or where I am going. Who knows, I might even die. I know this sounds dramatic and silly, but at some level, this is how tightly we hold on to our own perspective.
Listening and meditating involve letting go—releasing our tight grip on things in the mind. We become familiar with the sensation of release. At first it feels like falling, but once we have befriended it, once we have learned to relax with it, it feels good to let go. Letting go is another form of sameness. Our private opinions and judgments no longer create a division between us and the person speaking. We simply join with their experience. We become one and the same.
- Think about the last time someone really listened to you.
- Reflect on what it was like to have someone else drop his or her opinions and simply open to you and your perspective.
- What did you experience in your body? Can you recall sensations of relief, of relaxation, of safety setting in?
- Now think about a person in your life who could use being listened to.
- Are you willing to give the person a gift of presence and your undivided attention?