Listening is an act of surrender.
-Brian Eno, 20th century
But isn’t listening a natural act? Isn’t that what my two ears are for and something I do all the time without even having to think about it? That is what most of us think most of the time. But the truth is: nobody listens well without first deciding to. At least, I admit I never do. When I make an intentional decision and commitment to listen, I do it fairly well. But it is a lot of work.
Much of this work is because of the surrendering nature of intentional listening. When I do decide to listen, I make a choice to put my own thoughts and perceptions on pause. I choose to create an empty space within my consciousness and open up my senses to take in the other person, completely and totally. I am making a strong attempt when I do this to cross over into their world.
In her book, The Zen of You and Me, Diane Musho Hamilton suggests: 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 phones.
She shares a personal story which illustrates what a powerful tool listening can be to improve relationships and especially to help restore communication when something has gone wrong.
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 made 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.
Many times we want to help people. We want to help the situation to get better. We want to ease their pain, discomfort, anxiety, their struggle. But when we seek to provide a solution, or the obvious course of action (from our viewpoint), we have actually discounted the other person. We assume they are upset or angry or sad because they do not know what to do. But much of the time these are just the feelings they are dealing with and what they most need is for someone to listen; to hear them and their emotions and their thought; to acknowledge what is going on with them. When this occurs then they are able to deal with their emotions and with their circumstances and usually find their own solution and course of action. Listening is the best and most powerful gift we can offer them.
Listening and silence are a powerful tool for healing, believes Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, professor of Integrative Medicine in California. She writes: Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing.
Such silence and listening are often the primary gift God offers to us. They are divine attributes of love and acceptance. When we offer these same gifts to one another, we are offering love, as God has first loved us.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida