“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 for you”) 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.
[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.