Deep listening

What is it like as we talk to another? What is our automatic way of being in a conversation? How often as we listen  is part of our attention on what we need to say next rather than fully taking in what the other is saying? Rather than trusting that we will know how to respond when it is time to talk we may start planning what to say, and therefore do not fully hear the other.

As you talk to others do you notice how some people you know will listen and hear what you say, others will respond by immediately talking about their own experience or by trying to fix you – either by giving suggestions or offering an uninvited hug? How does it feel when others impose their own agenda rather than just acknowledge having heard you?

Mindful listening is a practice of staying fully present to your own thoughts and feelings whilst offering an open space for the other to talk in to. We have done it a few times in the group. It can feel strange to listen without responding verbally, but for some the experience of being able to talk without having others impose their own thoughts can feel liberating. 

I gave a talk this Friday at the Mindful living show and we started with this practice. There were about 80  people there. Many did not know each other, but the mindful listening practice offered a way to connect. The way it works is that one person sits and listens without saying anything. The listener stays present for one minute to their thoughts and feelings and when they notice their attention has drifted they bring it back to the breath and to listening. This creates a space for the other to speak into for their minute.

Experiences varied. Some found it hard to listen and not talk. Others found it very supportive to be able to talk and not have others impose their opinions or thoughts. By the end of the short exercise I then invited people to talk in their pairs and suddenly what had been a room full of strangers was abuzz with a gentle conversation. This had taken five minutes to reach. 

I went on to talk about how powerful this could be if it were taken into a workplace and people learnt to listen heartfully to each other, and hear what the the other was saying, rather than hear what they think the other is saying or asking for, or be caught up in there reaction to what they hear the other saying (which may not in fact be what they are saying, but how we hear what they are saying) – becoming a space of compassionate deep listening rather than simply reacting to what the other says.

To listen to others in this way we need also to bring this deep listening and non judgmental hearing of our own inner world. As I meet my own shadow and fears I find it becomes easier to hear and be present to others with whatever is going on for them. You may have noticed this yourself as you explore listening to your own experience within meditation, becoming a kinder, more gentle listener to the chaotic inner world. 

I hope you enjoy exploring this in your own practice. As you listen to another talking to you see if you can rest in to this deep listening, rather than the need to offer an opinion or immediately rush to speak. Allow what you say to come from this place of silent presence. 

This deep listening practice is from work by peace activist and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He talks about how deep listening can even help to bring war to an end. In the talk below he outlines what compassionate deep listing means for him.