A few years ago I purchased a book at a used bookstore called The Wisdom of Listening. It’s a book of essays from psychologists, leaders, healers, spiritual teachers, and social activists on the way listening is “vital to psychological and spiritual growth” (Mark Brady, “Introduction”). I return to this collection often, for the words and wisdom not only inform my practice and the way I interact with my clients, but they inform my life and relationships.
One of the greatest gifts I have discovered in this world is that of being deeply heard.
I think it’s rare, this gift. That makes me terribly sad. As people are thinking of what to purchase for holiday gifts this year and making trips to stores to collect these items, I cannot help but wish that we would in addition (or instead) give each other the gift of true listening, of surrendering our attention to another human being. Or several human beings.
We know when we don’t feel heard, right? To me, I feel like I’ve become a wispy fog-mist, forgotten and abandoned to float away. Other times, I feel the fire of anger rise up in my belly as frustration burns to the surface. How do you feel when you don’t feel heard? And remember that listening and hearing are different actions. We can listen to someone all day long, but it doesn’t mean we are truly hearing them — or that they feel heard.
So how do we become better at giving the gift to another of feeling deeply heard? First, we must get out of our own way. We must surrender to our sense of hearing, allowing our ears to do what they were meant to do and for our brains digest the information and for our hearts to circle what we hear with love (that creates a lovely whirlpool of empathy).
As Margaret Truxaw Hopkins writes in her essay, “The Healing Power of Being Deeply Heard,” “So how does one listen skillfully? As one teacher summarizes it bluntly to his students: ‘Shut up and learn to manage your own reactivity.'”
In other words, as Hopkins writes:
“One part of learning to listen is to simply stop talking and focus your attention on the speaker. Another part is to take responsibility for the thoughts and feelings that arise reactively and hold them in silent awareness, without judgment, while returning again and again to the intended focus on the speaker. It is much like meditation practice. I watch my monkey-mind try to get control of the conversation. I breathe. And I gently bring my awareness back to the focal point of the speaker. I notice when I stray from this intention. I come back again to the focus. And then I do it again…and again.”
I love Hopkins’s comparison between true listening and meditating. We often get distracted with our own thoughts that we actually stop listening to another. And we begin formulating responses before we’ve heard everything we need to hear.
This holiday season, give the gift of true listening to another. See if they receive the gift of feeling deeply heard. You can even ask them: “Is there more that you need to tell me that I may not have digested or understood fully?” When speaking, we want a home for our messages. Allow yourself to be the home for another person’s important words and radiate empathy and love back. What a gift, indeed.