On Listening

By Charu Ramesh

When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you have not done what I have asked.
When I ask you to listen and you start telling me why I shouldn’t feel the way I do, you are invalidating my feelings.
When I ask you to listen and you start trying to solve my problems, I feel underestimated and disempowered.
When I ask you to listen and you start telling me what I need to do, I feel offended, pressured and controlled.
When I ask you to listen, it does not mean I am helpless. I may be faltering, depressed or discouraged, but I am not helpless.
When I ask you to listen and you do things that I can and need to do for myself, you hurt my self-esteem.
But when you accept the way I feel, then I don’t need to spend time and energy trying to defend myself or convince you, and I can focus on figuring out why I feel the way I feel and what to do about it. And when I do that, I don’t need advice, just support, trust and encouragement. Please remember that what you think are irrational feelings always make sense if you take the time to listen and understand me.
— from Right Listening, by Mark Brady

Listening is one of the hardest things for us to do. When someone in pain comes to talk to us, all we want to do is take their pain away and so we prescribe solutions. When someone doesn’t agree with us or expresses a point of view we can’t see, we start formulating rebuttals in our head, even before they have finished speaking. And almost always, while “listening” to someone, we are thinking of all the times and ways the same thing has happened to us and can’t wait to let them know about it.

Thus, the process of listening becomes about us rather than the other person. We are so filled with our stories that there is no room to accommodate anything else. We think we are helping by providing solutions, alternate points of view, shared stories and perspectives and all the other useful things we do. But perhaps what would help the other most is just to be heard – without judgment, without next steps, without anything except total attention. After all, how can I provide a solution if I haven’t fully heard what you have to say? And hearing not just by staying silent outwardly, but also being silent inside – fully open to what the other is saying, without any of my own agendas, viewpoints and internal chatter.

This is not a skill we have been taught, and with our culture’s emphasis on constant communication, silence can be an uncomfortable proposition for many of us. One of the reasons we don’t know how to listen to others is that we don’t know how to listen to ourselves. The moment we come across anything uncomfortable – from a physical pain to any emotional distress – our first response is to try and get rid of it. This might not be a bad idea at all, but perhaps if we first took the time to understand it, we would be more capable of knowing how to deal with it, rather than using any slapdash solution that might present itself in the moment.

So, why don’t you experiment a bit? The next time someone is talking to you, resolve to hear them out fully without interrupting; and resolve to notice your own internal responses while you are listening to them.  See what happens if you don’t act on any of them and listen patiently. You might be surprised to see that your response changes, often quite dramatically. You might also be surprised by how supported the other person feels when you do this.

Then try it with yourself. When your mind comes up with something that you immediately want to quash or run away from, spend a few moments exploring it with kindness. What brought this on? What is going on here? You might still decide against it, but this decision will feel entirely different from one taken without true listening.

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.
Rachel Naomi Remen

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