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Wholehearted Listening

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Years ago, while working in the public sector, I was confronted with the reality that my staff and peers, did not feel heard by me. This took me totally by surprise. I thought of myself as a good listener.  It was this realization, that inspired me to become a coach and that ultimately began a life long journey of learning to listen well. That journey led to the recognition that listening is not simply the act of hearing well. The practice of listening includes how well you hear others, how well you hear yourself and your ability to notice inherent wisdom of life. 

Listening is perhaps the most powerful act of loving kindness and very likely, the most difficult.  How often do you feel heard by the people in your life? Most of us, if we are totally honest, would say not often.  This is because typically, we listen and think at the same time. We respond to what we hear, not with openness, but with analysis, judgment and a defining of our personal perspective. We are figuring out what to say when it is our turn to speak.

The act of listening with openness, with a pure and intentional focus on what is being said, allows us to discover that no response is required or that it is ok to take a moment of inner reflection to determine the appropriate response. Something magical happens in these moments. There is a deep connection that occurs between self and other. It is a connection that is defined by compassion, understanding and the realization that we are in fact hearing ourselves. There is no experience, emotion, concept or idea that can be shared where we do not find some place where we connect. 

The other side of the coin is, when we are deeply heard by another we experience the miracle of hearing ourselves. In the absence of the listener’s desire to fix or respond, we can acknowledge the deeper meaning of what is being said. This is wholehearted listening. Holding the space of acceptance, as the listener and the one who is heard, allows the wisdom that is at the heart of life itself to surface.

Wholehearted listening begins with noticing what is happening inside of you.  Are you thinking? Are you planning what to say next? Are you coming up with the appropriate advice?  Focus your attention on what is being said, whether it is you or someone else saying it. Allow for a few seconds of silence when it appears the speaker is finished. This allows the listener to determine if a response is required and what the appropriate, compassionate response should be. It also allows the speaker to process what they said, add to it or notice what is at the core of their sharing. Finally if you notice yourself judging, analyzing or advising, that’s ok.  Hold that with compassion too, and let it be a reminder for the next time to be the one who simply holds the space.

One of my favourite writers, Mark Nepo sums up wholehearted listening perfectly in his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. “When we listen with our mind, we understand more of life. When we listen with our heart, we feel more of life. When we listen with our entire being and spirit, we are transformed and joined with life itself.”  So listen well, and let life live you!