Listen Up! The True Sounds of Relationship

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In his Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to commit ourselves to cultivating loving speech and “compassionate listening.” I like that phrase, compassionate listening. I like it so much I took it as the topic of meditation the other day, asking myself what exactly is compassionate listening.  Here’s the insight that arose.

Compassionate listening is a practice of letting go of self, quieting our mind, and taking in the communication of another not just with ears but with all of our senses. This stands in contrast to the typical listening we do when we pay attention only enough to know when to insert our thoughts, validate our ideas, and prove ourselves as the most competent, witty, determined, prepared, intelligent (or whatever our psyche needs in the moment). One could argue the usual way we listen to one another is aggressive because it’s not about relationship at all; it’s about asserting self.

The  not-so-funny thing is when our minds are preoccupied with the business of strengthening self-image, our doubts and insecurities are filters keeping us from taking in the message’s entirety. They clog sensory receivers and we actually fail to absorb a good deal of the communication directed our way. Operating with partial information, we—of course—risk responding inappropriately.

In compassionate listening, we let go of our preoccupation with self and train ourselves to simply be present with another. The din of anxiety quiets and we better absorb the true sounds of relationship. We come to trust ourselves because–in our experience–when the time comes for us to speak or do we are fully informed and the right response for the moment naturally comes to us.

People who listen compassionately are comfortable with silence. They know the communication continues through wordlessness because they are experiencing a relationship that transcends words.

Once, I entered a post-op recovery room to find my husband alone and in a chemical sleep after surgery. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by miles of wire, an antiseptic stink, and the shrill bleeping machines of modern medicine. Alarm shook me because my man was trapped and vulnerable in its midst. I went to his side, wrapped his shoulders in my arms and rested my forehead on his temple, our faces close. My notions of self and distance evaporated. Quite naturally, our breathing synchronized. Standing in this posture opened me to compassionate, full-body listening and in a few moments I came to know with confidence he was quite well and comfortable. Compassionate listening communicated beyond words and even beyond consciousness. I heard deeply the message he was offering.

I suspect you may be like many readers and think yourself a pretty good listener. Perhaps in youth you were preoccupied with doubt or insecurity, but now you’re mature and mellow, right? Well, consider this: another great hindrance to listening is thinking. Our reasoning mind is in the habit of incessantly judging and evaluating: yes—I agree with that; oh, that can’t be true; pishaw—no one can claim that for sure. If you’re like me, we have been taught and highly rewarded for our reasoning over the years. But, our inner monologue of weighing and measuring what we’re listening to can be noisy enough to obscure communication’s flow. Worse, we could be preoccupied with thinking about how to change the situation being described. Compassionate listening challenges us to silence our internal chatter so a deep understanding of reality can flower before we form solutions or conclusions.

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Here’s a trick that helps me. If I am determined to listen with compassion even though my mind is full of chatter and my body is itching to take action, I put most of my attention on listening to what another is saying and pin a small amount of awareness (10 to 20%) on my breathing. This limited and emotionally neutral distraction is enough to get me to settle down, come into relationship, and fully digest the message headed my way. This listening technique was especially appreciated years ago by staff that sometimes needed my input even though I was absorbed in my own work.

I find myself these days compassionately listening to messages from the most unlikely places. I can practice compassionate listening with humans and non-humans alike; just ask my cat or dog if they feel deeply heard by me. I listen also to non-living beings: the wisdom of a mountain, the joy of a forest, the meaning of an ocean wave. Calm and open in meditation, my ancestor’s hopes and dreams echo in my body and guide my path. When I pay attention, the aspirations of future generations resonate clearly in my consciousness.

For all these reasons, compassionate listening to and beyond words is a source of insight. The practice allows me to hear the true sounds of a whole host of relationships. It cultivates in me an unflappable knowing and self-confidence in home-grown wisdom. Simply put, when I listen deeply and compassionately, I know better how to be and what to do.

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store last week and the clerk appeared to be having a very bad day. Her body was slumped; her movements weary. No one was speaking to her and she seemed caught in heavy thoughts. Rather than distracting myself with tabloid headlines as I waited my turn, I listened to her. Compassion opened, but I had no idea what I might say to make her situation better.

“Are you going to be able to leave here soon?” The words fell from my lips when the woman picked up my jar of salad dressing. She looked up in surprise.

“I’ve got less than an hour, yeah.” She brightened an inch.

“I hope you’re going to do something special for yourself tonight.”

“Actually,” she said, smiling, “I’m going to sit on my patio and put my feet up.”

“Oh good—you’ll get to enjoy the incredible day outside!”

Our conversation continued for a few more minutes and when I left with my groceries the woman was energized and already chatting with the next customer.

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