The heart of listening
I am very much drawn to listening and ‘listening in’ to the essence of the listening process. As a developer and trainer of the Mindfulness based Active Listening Program for volunteers on a suicide prevention helpline, as a counselor and psychotherapist, as a mindfulness practitioner and just being a reflective person, there have been many instances and opportunities in my personal and professional life to engage with this question.
Earlier on as a psychologist there were all these `techniques’ of how to listen. You ask open ended questions, reflect, validate, normalize, paraphrase, summarize - all the active listening skills. I probably was a better listener before I knew the `skills’. Not that the skills are not useful, but skills alone doesn’t quite take you there. Listening is about holding space for another. And here’s what I mean.
At the heart of listening is silence. One, this simply means you really need to step back and listen. Let a natural pause occur in the conversation. You would notice the natural pause if you are not filling in every slightest pause, covering it with words, thoughts, ideas, opinions and stories. If that pause is allowed, if something within us rests, we hear those places that were tucked in some cobwebbed corners of the other’s being, those that were held back for so long, that desperately attempted to get heard. Until now. These unheard places within the other get heard and seen. Just practicing this much in itself can bring about a huge shift in relationships.
Once there is sufficient mastery of just refraining from coming in, allow the other person to complete what they are saying. Sit with the other, in attuned silence. Let the words or questions come naturally thereafter.
As you journey in this discovery of listening, keep reflecting on this question, ‘Am I really paying attention? What would it mean to give another our whole, complete attention?’.
Now you can really beginning to notice your own internal processes, what’s the mind doing as someone is telling you something. Is there an immediate comparison with your own story, or an agreement or disagreement, wanting to offer advice? And letting that just be. It’s like it’s your own background score going on as you are listening to the other. Simply noticing, acknowledging these background voices in your head and then bringing attention to the other person. Your full attention. Your full attention lets the other person `hear’ many valuable messages, like `You are important’, `What you say is precious’ ‘I hear you’ ‘I see you’. These are messages that most of us hunger for. And when we receive them fully - like a `being to being’ exchange we feel deeply nourished, quenched. These are gifts and offerings of being listened to.
When we are listened to in this way, we feel honoured for who and what we are. There is no judgment here, no corrections, just a nice warm acceptance. `This is the way it is for you and it’s ok.’ `Here is how you are experiencing yourself just for now and that’s ok’.
As we practice listening in this way, at some point, there is no longer `you’ listening. It’s just awareness holding and allowing everything that is arising and falling, without judgment. Many a times, the words dissolve and even though there are the words there is a sense of spaciousness in and around the words. At some time, you are not even `paying attention’ to that. It just is. You, the other, the space between the words, impressions forming, releasing and the deep silence.
Now what’s happening to the speaker, as his words, feelings, his whole being is held in this spaciousness, in this Presence. Something begins to melt, dislodge itself through this powerful acceptance of what’s going on and that it’s all ok. This suicidal thought, this helplessness, this hopelessness, this overwhelm. It’s all ok. What needs to take its time, takes its time. There is no rush, nowhere to get to, just a simple unfolding.
Then, from this silence, from this Listening Presence, emerges perhaps new ground: a new idea, a new direction, a new feeling, a fresh insight or a reaffirmation of something deep down that was already known. If you stay long enough for this natural wisdom to unfold, it does. Life always moves towards itself. Trust that.
If training is required in this field, then the training must be self awareness. What’s going on for you in this moment? Is there a reaction to either correct, negate or desperately `help’ the other person out of his misery. This motivation of wanting `to help’ is a big one that we must confront.
Its a question that comes up for anyone in the healing and helping profession. Quite honestly, who are you rescuing and why? Very often, it is the rescuing of our own selves from emotions that we do not want to feel, that we do not have the capacity for, of that something we can’t tolerate within ourselves, something that we are listening to that invites us to open up to our own woundedness. If we want to listen wholeheartedly to another, we must be willing to listen wholeheartedly to ourselves. We need to be willing to be vulnerable and welcoming of anything that shows up in this sacred `field’ that listening creates.
If we need training we need training in helping our own selves, regulating and allowing the emotions that are coming up within us. As we learn to regulate physiologically, we become a steady ground and base for everything to arise and melt. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if those feelings are generated from our own incomplete experiences or the speaker’s as he or she is completing something within.
The question that arises is that in this way of listening - `Who gets healed?’. Both the listener and speaker are held in this loving field created by the non-judgment and acceptance. Both, the listener and speaker get touched when they stand together on this ground of Being.
As we listen to another in this way, we are in a powerful state of resonance. Resonance simply means we mirror each other. This is the basis of human relationships and what is called as empathy. The beauty about resonance is that as we practice being this stable ground, everything in us resonates in the speaker. It’s like an invitation for the other to also come into this stable grounding. We increasingly begin to notice this relational space as well, this very being together, in a human, intimate, soft and gentle way.
The training in listening needs to be in building capacity to feel the whole gamut of the human experience. Only what you allow in ourselves and to the extent to which you allow it, you can allow in others. For example, if you find the energy of anger uncomfortable in yourself, you will have a hard time staying with the anger of another person in a grounded way. You increasingly learn to relax into experience. All of us often need another, when things feel too much, to hold this grounded Presence and in the relaxed holding, we can let something in us relax as well.
Therefore in any training in listening, it is vital to have embodiment, to include some form of body awareness and the wisdom of body based approaches. This allows us to include the body in awareness, in noticing one’s own body and allowing the arising and falling of sensations and the movement towards life in our own being. This requires some training of perception as few of us have this capacity for an embodied form of listening.
This helps us to tune in to the larger framework of your speaker’s story, the context within which the story is being narrated. This is the spaciousness in and around the words, in and around the story. The more you start to see it, the more you will notice that there is a movement towards life, as the other person is speaking, in what they are saying. You will begin to notice that constrictions in the body becomes a flow and there’s more warmth and lightness.
And now that this movement towards life is seen and acknowledged by you, it starts to flow even more freely, until you and the speaker bask in this love. You begin to sense this taste or perhaps just a flavour of something that’s not just in the speaker or in you but again in the field or space in which you and the speaker are meeting. That there is a larger holding that actually has been there all along comes into full view, like at last being in `mother’s’ arms or a homecoming or like being more fully yourself.
Then we can simply remain with the question -`Who or what is holding?’ And we can simply rest in that question as we have a taste of the vastness and spaciousness of heart, mind, body and spirit - a taste of this sacred ground of Being. Indeed, deep listening is a doorway into these deep treasures that are always here.
Sandy Dias Andrade is the Founder-Director of Just Being Center for Mindfulness & Presence and Mindfulness & Presence oriented Psychotherapist. She is the developer & trainer of Mindfulness Based Active Listening at Connecting NGO (suicide prevention helpline). She is also the developer and lead trainer of the one year Diploma in Mindfulness Based Counseling: Listening with Embodied Presence offered by Just Being.