“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
— Anonymous (but with many unconfirmed attributions to Robert McClosky – not the children’s author, a State Department spokesman during the Vietnamese War in the late 1960’s)
When I first started planning what to write for this month’s #1000Speak post on listening, the quote above popped into my head. An old favorite from my youth (I think I may have first encountered it in an Art Buchwald column at the time). It is, perhaps, not entirely in line with the compassion theme, but it serves to start off with a reminder that we often hear the words and not the intent, and in order to listen compassionately, we have to move beyond our natural tendency toward distracted listening.
The next thing that popped into my head, and stayed there for days (oh, those pesky earworms) was Cat Stevens’ highly introspective, and very short, song, “The Wind”:
“I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
Only God really knows”
This is also, perhaps, not entirely relevant to a piece on compassionate listening, but it, too, has its place. Compassion has to start within us. And learning to be still and listen to ourselves will bring us closer to being able to do the same for others. It is true that if we are not listening to ourselves mindfully, and with compassion, we will never be able to listen to others compassionately. It sounds trite, but we have to understand ourselves before we can understand others. So, listen to that voice in your head, and occasionally the one in your heart, so that you can find your own equilibrium. That makes is much easier to simply live in a world inhabited by other people, and makes it possible to reach out. With a helping hand, or to take one.
“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”
— Margaret J. Wheatley
Hearing is passive, listening is active. We hear an overwhleming amount all day long. Those of us capable of hearing, are also incapable of turning it off. We are, in fact, bombarded by sounds, all of the time. Our brains, helpfully, do block out ‘normal’ sounds while we sleep – so that we can sleep – and they also filter sounds, in much the same way that they filter abundant visual stimulation, by deciding what’s relevant, and dialing back what isn’t (or hopefully isn’t).
Unfortunately, we also filter quite a bit, unconsciously, while listening also. This is very apparent when we listen while doing other things – we get distracted by email while on a conference call, or we are attempting to eat dinner while chatting with a friend on the phone, or we are trying to read while our children are talking to us about something that we have minimal interest in, or… There a veritable multitude that I’m guilty of and I know I’m not alone. Suddenly I realize that I have absolutely no idea what we are talking about – let alone why my opinion is necessary.
“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
When we attempt to listen while doing other tasks, we often miss the intent, if not the actual words. When someone tells us they are tired, it could be simply a factual observation. Or it could mean that they’re bored (a common problem with teens). Or it could be indicative of an existential crisis. Or depression. Unless we are really listening – to the words as well as the tone, the underlying emotion – we may miss something important. Perhaps even an attempt to reach out.
“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen
But, we have another, more difficult, problem when listening. Part of our brain’s filtering, categorizing, and self-protective functions, includes keeping ‘me’ front and center. Even when we are listening attentively, we are still hearing through our own filters – our own experiences, prejudices, belief system. A co-worker’s spouse has gout? How did your Aunt Jane deal with hers? We are often listening more with an ear out for how to respond. Even if our intent is sympathy, understanding, common ground, it is still making the listening about us, not about the person we’re listening to. Many times all that is needed is someone to listen. Not to offer advice, not to commiserate. Just to listen. This is perhaps hardest of all. Part of our desire to connect leads us to seek out a common thread that we can respond with, but that comes from our own desire. Ask if there’s anything we can do, if that’s appropriate, and sincere, but don’t preface the offer with a commentary about Aunt Jane’s gout, or your problems with morning sickness during your second trimester.
Don’t multi-task, try to take your own experiences out of the equation, and just listen. Something that is increasingly difficult to do in our highly electronic, multi-tasking oriented world, but it is necessary to try as we continue our efforts to make our corner of the universe a better, more compassionate place.
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
To add your voice to the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, please check out the Facebook group here.