Sometimes the most difficult, most generous act of Mindfulness you can carry out in a day is to listen fully to another human being. It’s especially difficult when that person doesn’t seem to have anything to say that is inherently interesting to you. And even more challenging when that person speaks in a halting, sometimes convoluted way.
The struggle is to turn down the distracting, diverting thoughts in your head. These thoughts are bubbling around because what you are hearing is so predictable or deadly dull that it seems like the experience of full-focus listening might actually kill you. Certainly it feels physically painful.
But, with practice, you build up your listening muscles. This listening strength includes the power to stay focused intensely on what that other person is actually saying and also why they might feel the need to say it to you at this particular moment. Listening strength is also the endurance to hang on, to listen patiently, even encouragingly for 10, or even 20 minutes at a time.
But your active engagement with this person is a gift and maybe one that might be reciprocated by your counter-party feeling understood, enabling them to clarify their own thinking, to open up further, to perhaps drop some inhibitions and become more trusting and closer to you.
Topics: Mindful listening, listening mindfully, listening skills
Some wisdom from leading management thinker Marshall Goldsmith during a recent public visit to India:
“…The more successful people become, the more positive reinforcement you get. This is called the ‘Superstition Complex.’ You think that if you behave this way, you are successful. And you are successful because you behave this way.
For instance, has anyone here been promoted in the last two years? Now those of you who have been promoted: Have you noticed that your jokes have gotten a little funnier, everything you say is very wise; you even look like you’ve lost weight?
It is very hard not to let this nonsense go to your head. It is very important that the more successful we become, we learn to demonstrate our humility and tell ourselves, “I am here, I am successful because of something and despite other things.”
Marshall has developed over the years the practice of “Feed-Forward.” How it works: People reach out to one another and say, “My name is X and I want to get better at Y.” You ask for ideas and people give you ideas and you treat those ideas as a gift. You don’t put the person down; you say thank-you and then you listen and follow-up on it. Amazingly, people get better and it’s positive and it really works.”
“…Buddha says, listen to everything but only choose what works for you. Well, that is the essence of feed-forward. I ask you for ideas, listen to you, I try to seek value in what you are saying, I don’t promise to do everything you say but I do promise to listen and pick up the ideas that I can use.”
Rick Hanson notes that humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people.
“…How do you find that sweet spot in which you are open, caring, and brave enough to let others land in your heart . . . while also staying balanced, centered, and at peace in your core?
…Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion – the sincere wish that a being not suffer – will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been reflecting on his years in government and the key skills required to reduce conflict and make peace.
This is from an essay he wrote recently, published in The Guardian newspaper:
…The personal relationships that are built during the course of making peace matter enormously. Again this is obvious, but frequently missed. Part of the problem in these situations – which I witness continually in my work in the Middle East today – is that to bring people together you have to understand in a genuine sense why they feel as strongly as they do. This is not a matter of reason but of emotion.
In a conflict there is suffering of a nature and on a scale that we from the outside can scarcely appreciate, because it is not within our experience. Each side has a sense of pain and of cruel consequence from the other side’s actions. They need to know that those mediating get this feeling, not at a rational but at an empathetic level. In getting it, the mediator is then able to pass something of the pain of each side to the other. Especially where there has been violence over a prolonged period, and in conflict the violence often either falls or is even directed at the innocent, being able to articulate the sense of hurt and know that the other side has been forced at least to confront it, is a powerful way of opening up the dialogue that can lead to peace.
To be a fly on the wall when Barack Obama sat down with the Dalai Lama. Both legendarily good listeners. Both committed to empathic leadership. Certainly one imagines that the president was on his very best behavior and that the Tibetan leader is always in the patient-compassionate zone. What exactly happened? Who spoke more? Was it a completely equal?
There’s a well-worn piece of advice about listening – because we have two ears but only one mouth we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. But naturally the question arises: What about when both people are listening twice as much as they are talking. In a 60 minute meeting that means person A could speak for 15 minute and listen for 30 minutes. Person B could do the same. That leaves what? Thirty minutes of silence. Probably not 30 minutes in a row of silence but each minute of talking surrounded by 60 seconds of quietude. Time for appreciation of each other’s point of view, the constraints and challenges each side faces. Time to breathe. Time to really connect to each other’s faces, really see into each other’s eyes. Time for discernment and wonder.
The Dalai Lama is certainly comfortable with silence. Perhaps the president is too, considering he has been sending his children to a Quaker school.
The next time we meet with someone important in our lives, might we honor the other with a connection that can often be more profound than words?