THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness.It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still.  It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice….We listen with our being.  We offer our whole listening body.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling foryou”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

 

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[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

THE SACRED EXPERIENCE OF LISTENING AND BEING HEARD

Many of my clients come to therapy because they have not been truly heard throughout their lives. Healing begins when the client feels heard by the therapist. When clients have an experience of being heard fully and without judgment by the therapist, they can take the experience of listening and being heard into their lives and experience the sacred space between themselves and others.

Being heard goes hand-in-hand with “active listening.”   Wikipedia describes  active listening as “a special way of reflecting back what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening…. Active Listening is a restatement of the other person’s communication, both the words and the accompanying feelings, i.e., nonverbal cues—tone of voice, facial expression, body posture.”

Instead of active listening, we often interrupt the speaker with our own ideas or agenda, assume we know what the speaker is going to say and tune them out, get triggered by the depth of what is being said and shut down, or get distracted by our own thoughts.

Active listening involves one’s whole being. It is not just passive silence, but a way of using body, heart and mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and to convey that he or she is being heard. This is done through means such as paraphrasing, reflecting back what you heard, asking questions, maintaining eye contact or nodding your head.

Active listening is a mutual act between the listener and speaker. We listen not only to the words, but also to body language, inflection, tone and other modes of expression. For example, if a friend is telling a story about a great experience visiting family, but her facial expression seems sad, there may be something that is not being expressed in words.

The best instruction I have received for active listening is two words: “Be curious.” Using the example above, the listener might ask “your face looks sad to me when you just told me about your family visit. Is there anything you are sad about?” It takes practice to not assume that you know what is going on and to not judge what you have heard. Asking questions in this way allows both speaker and listener to go deeper and develop closeness and intimacy.

Something sacred happens through active listening and being heard. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the “I and Thou” experience. A sacred space is created between two people when they truly listen and are heard. According to Buber, the ultimate sacred space is that between a person and God. In Buddhism, this can be the experience of our inherent Buddha Nature – the primordial wisdom and purity that exists in all of us at all times, but which we forget as we go through life and start to build defenses against being spontaneously present with ourselves and others.

Only by understanding that we are all in the same boat we call human life can we listen and be heard, with empathy and openness. Instead, we often view those with whom we relate as totally separate from us. We do so to protect ourselves from being seen, or to satisfy some agenda. Buber calls such an interaction “I and It” rather than I and Thou.

The experience of I and Thou can only be sustained when we are fully open and mindful, noticing when we shut down and protect ourselves or when we stop listening to another. Seeing when we shut down can be instructive. It can show us where we are stuck in not wanting to be close and intimate with others. By understanding the triggers that cause us to shut down and protect ourselves, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and be fully being present with others, without an agenda or guardedness.

I have always found it interesting that the words “heard” and “heart” are so similar. Our wounded hearts can be healed by the mutual experience of listening with our whole body, heart and mind and being heard. We can then experience the sacred space of I and Thou between us.  As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax has said:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely thatthe person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness. It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still. It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice. We listen with our being. We offer our whole listening body.[1]

 

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[1] Joan Halifax, in Gifts of the Spirit, by Philip Zaleski & Paul Kaufman (1997).

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

LETTING GO IS NOT GIVING UP


“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

–Bob Marley, Redemption Song

We resist the idea of letting go because we tend to equate it with giving up or surrendering to another’s will. When we let go and accept what we are actually feeling and listen to what another is saying, compassion and freedom can arise. In contrast, when we immediately guard or defend ourselves, we cannot hear what another is actually saying. In addition, when we reflexively defend our position, we are dissociating ourselves from our emotions and the truth.

How to Let Go

The first step in letting go is to experience our feelings in a direct, non-judgmental and honest way. The best way to do that is to take a breath and feel your bodily sensations. For example, if someone says something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, my go-to reflexive response is to immediately defend myself and my position. When that happens, the tension between us escalates, and neither of us truly hears what the other person is saying.

When I am mindful and take a step back before automatically reacting, I can hear both what the other person is asking, and what I am feeling in response. In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You , Dzogchen Ponlop calls this taking a “mindful gap.” Taking a pause rather than immediately reacting allows me to hold the present moment, feel the energy in my body, and look directly at my experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

Using the example of someone saying something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, when I take a mindful step back and observe my bodily sensations, I may feel a tightness in my heart. I breathe into that tightness and find that what I am feeling is hurt and sadness. Then I can get perspective and can choose to respond in a responsible way, hearing the need the other person is expressing rather than my hurt feelings. This does not mean that I give up feeling hurt, but rather, take responsibility for it in a compassionate way. I can then let it go and respond in an empathic and responsible way.

From Emotional Slavery to Emotional Liberation

This process is described by Marshall Rosenberg in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : “We take responsibility for our feelings, rather than blame other people, by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values and thoughts.” This is the key to compassionate communication and healing our relationships, with ourselves and all others.

The result of taking responsibility in this way is what Rosenberg calls “emotional liberation.” Freedom occurs when we experience and take responsibility for our feelings, understand what another needs and what we need, and make requests that are in accord with our needs. As Bob Marley notes in Redemption Song, when we own our feelings, we can free ourselves from “mental slavery” and let go.

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References:

Bob Marley, Redemption Song. © 1980. Kobalt Music Pub. America o/b/o Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Pub. Ltd. and Blackwell Fuller Music Pub. Ltd.

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/

M. Rosenberg. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Life-Changing-Relationships/

(c) 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved