Learning How to Listen
Learning how to listen may be the most intimate thing we can do with another person without touching them.
Some people think listening is waiting for a person who is talking to take a breath so we can talk. They assume listening is an opportunity to think about what they want to say next.
Learning to listen is listening on a more significant level. It is not merely hearing what someone says, but connecting with who they truly are.
Learning How to Listen is an Intentional Practice
When we learn how to listen to someone else it requires our entire selves: body, mind and spirit. It is a dance which combines being open, paying careful attention, and being our true selves.
As we connect with other people, we become more aware of how to connect with ourselves in more honest ways. Learning how to listen is recognizing ourselves in new ways. It is beginning to understand all the truths of the world which are beyond words. Growing more comfortable and accepting of ourselves and of others, we learn to listen for the deeper truths.
It goes beyond being good at reading people, beyond accommodating them. Learning how to listen is opening ourselves to the selves of others.
Being honest and open, especially with ourselves, is a prerequisite for listening. It is impossible to pay attention and be open to someone else when false selves are distracting us.
If we cannot be open and pay attention to ourselves, how can we expect to listen to someone else?
Listening includes letting go of all the other things which distract us and opening ourselves to someone else. We can only listen to one person at a time.
Leadership and Learning to Listen
Some of us think of leaders as people who get a lot of attention, who talk to groups, who are well organized. We might think that “I could never do that,” or are relieved when we are not asked!
Listening can be challenging. There are almost always things to distract our attention. We live in a time when stillness is scarce. Loud noises, music in the background, other conversations, sights and scents demanding our attention, the need for rest; all these things and more draw our attention away from listening.
For me, the most distracting things come from within myself. Someone tells me something which triggers a memory, a strong feeling; I can relate to them well, or not at all. Something they say reminds me I need to do something, call someone, go somewhere; I want to remember, but I also want to remain present to them.
That is a lot of what learning to listen is: being present to someone in the moment. It is, in many ways, the opposite of impatiently waiting for them to finish talking. Listening is not guiding them strategically to where I want them to go. Listening is about sharing my true self in the present.
We cannot listen well to what someone has said in the past, or to what they will be saying next. Listening always happens in the present. We are drawn into an awareness we live and listen in the present moment.
Learning to listen is the first step on the path to becoming the leader we can be.
Learning to Listen Begins in Stillness
Before the spark of creativity, before the flash of an idea, before inspiration strikes, before we begin working, we are still. Stillness is where our inspiration and ideas begin.
I was not always comfortable with stillness. It was something which needed to be filled with talking, or with music, or other random sound. I am an extrovert, and feel the stimulation of sound give me a boost of energy.
Sound took my attention away from my own sense of emptiness, my own lack of depth and interior life, my own sense of being lost. I did not listen, because the sound in my life gave me other things to which I could pay attention.
In his Rule, Benedict envisions and supports a way of life based in listening and silence. The first words in his Prologue are, “Listen Carefully.” He urges leaders to listen to everyone in the community. He encourages everyone to listen deeply, to listen “with the ear of your heart.” The days in Benedict’s communities are filled with listening and stillness. At night they observe the Great Silence.
Benedict is writing to people who are intentional about their interior lives, who intend their communities to reflect those interior lives. Monks tend not to seek distractions or stimulation outside themselves. They recognize the significance and passion within themselves. Their focus is on strengthening their lives from the inside out.
As I began to develop contemplative practices, I came to recognize the value of stillness. It is a source of rest and refreshment.
Stillness is also the place where we can best listen: to ourselves and to other people.
Seeking Opportunities for Listening
One of the most striking aspects of New Camaldoli Hermitage is the stillness. It is more than the absence of talking and other noise. When we spend time in stillness we do not need to figure out what we are going to say to anyone. Layers of interior distractions can melt away.
It has been a challenge for me to learn how to appreciate stillness and listening. I tend to be a focused person, and my initial approach to listening was particularly focused. I translated “openness” into a hyper-vigilance, straining to hear the tiniest breath within myself. In many ways, I was avoiding being open by being so over-sensitive.
I thought stillness was working to catch everything; holding on, not letting go.
As we learn to listen, we can appreciate the pauses, the spaces between words. We learn to interpret all of the nonverbal ways we communicate who we truly are.
Who has learned how to listen well to us today?
How do we learn to listen with the ear of our heart?
[Image by lanuiop]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.