Deep Listening

I was fortunate enough to spend a week having deep listening modeled for me at the Mindfulness Meditation Teachers program by our teachers, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield.  When complaints were made using unskillful speech, Tara would stop, and reframe using questions to ensure she understood and the speaker felt understood.  Whenever she sensed we were not present, we would do a one minute sit, or mindful movement to bring us back.  This was done with kindness, not judgement.

Mindful speech requires learning to listen deeply.  If we cannot listen mindfully, we will not speak mindfully.  We will  be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.  Mirabai Bush said:

When we think we already know what there is to hear, we are simply moving a little too fast to really listen—That’s where meditation comes in.

For years I had been trying to work on my listening skills with no improvement.   No matter how strong my intention to listen better, I still completed others sentences and did not listen well.  Eight years ago I started meditating, and slowly my listening skills improved.  So much so that when I told a colleague at American Family that I used to finish others sentences, she did not believe me as she had never seen me doing that.

Unless we look deeply into ourselves, deep listening will not be easy.  It requires us to give up preconceived ideas, judgments, and desires. So being good at listening  requires the ability to listen to yourself. If you can’t recognize your own beliefs and opinions, needs and fears, you won’t have enough inner space to really hear anyone else. So the foundation for mindful listening is self-awareness.

At the Mindfulness Meditation Teachers program, we often had time for self-reflection and journaling before getting into our small groups.  I noticed that listening was much easier when I had reflected on the topic, than when I hadn’t.  Some of the contraction fell away.  As we practiced mindfulness of the body, emotions, and thoughts, I looked deeply into myself.  This gave me the space to hear others, instead of being contracted by worrying about what they might think of me.

David Rome says,

Like mindfulness itself, listening takes a combination of intention and attention. The intention part is having a genuine interest in the other person—their experiences, views, feelings, and needs. The attention part is being able to stay present, open, and unbiased as we receive the other’s words—even when they don’t line up with our own ideas or desires.

True listening requires a deep respect and a genuine curiosity about situations.  The intention is not to judge, criticize, condemn, or evaluate, but to listen with the single purpose of helping the other person suffer less. I think there is another wholesome intention: that is to listen with the intent to be changed by what you hear, especially when you are speaking with someone with a different viewpoint.

Some intentions draw us away from deep listening: wanting the person to perceive us in a certain way, wanting the conversation to go in a specific direction,  wanting to fix or control the other person.

After all my practice with deep listening at the Mindfulness Meditation Teachers retreat, I came home with lots of things I wanted to tell my husband.  He in return had lots to tell me.  While I listened to what he said, I did not listen deeply.  In the back of my mind (OK sometimes it was the front of my mind) I would be thinking: and I want to tell him about this, and this and this.  So rather than really focusing on what he was saying, I was preparing what I wanted to tell him.  My intention was wanting the conversation to go in a specific direction.

Attention is a willingness just to be there and share stories.  If you listen only with half an ear, you cannot relive suffering.  Preoccupation with wants, fears and stress keeps us from being here.  The stronger the wants and the fears, the more narrow the aperture.  We can’t take it in.  We are otherwise occupied or fixated.  Wanting pulls us from present.  Sometimes what we want has nothing to do with the person.  We can want to get back to work or to go get something to eat.  Other times the want is to fix things for them.  So instead of listening to what they really need, we are busy figuring out how we will rescue them from their troubles.

The energy of irritation, anger or other negative feelings also pulls our attention away from listening.  If you are suffering, you can’t be there for others.  In that case the best immediate practice is to breath in and out to calm yourself.  If you cannot calm yourself, postpone the conversation to a time when you can be calm. This allows you to have compassion the whole time you are listening.

Like mindfulness, deep listening is also non-judgmental.  If the other person feels that we are critical of what they’re saying, their suffering will not be relieved.  When someone listens to us in a non-judgmental way, we feel some relief right away.  We also feel a connection to them.  Listening in a non-judgmental way opens the space, allows us to hear what needs to be done in that moment. It also allows us to hear when it is better not to act, which is sometimes a hard message to receive.

While deep listening and loving speech were not the content discussed at the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher training program, they were the format for processing the topics we were learning about: Mindfulness of Breath, Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Emotions, Self-Compassion and RAIN, Metta to name a few.  Getting in small groups multiple times a day, I had the opportunity to watch my peers model deep listening.  At first I felt uncomfortable with the long pauses where you just let what you heard sink in.  And I was thinking about what I was going to say.  Seeing the half smile on the speaker as the listeners gaze at them to let their words sink in brought about a shift in me.  For the second speaker, I really tried deep listening, probably for the first time in my life.  It was so wonderful to just be there for the person speaking.  I did not have to worry about what they would think of me, how I would respond, or how I would fix it for them.  I just listened.  And with the deep listening, compassion came.  I wanted to let them know I heard their suffering.  When it was my turn to share, I could really feel the safety to speak from my heart, the compassion and a strong connection to my small group.

I learned that deep listening nourishes both the listener and the speaker and that it brings about healing.  I definitely felt this at my retreat.  But it is much easier to do in a retreat setting than everyday life.  My intention is to be mindful of what I feel in my body when my mind starts to drift from really listening.  I thought that I just needed to recognize that I am getting off track, take a couple of breaths and come back with beginner’s mind to hear what is being said.  But I learned in real life, that is much easier said than done.  Deep listening has to be practiced just like meditation.

Everyone needs understanding and acceptance.   So if you really love someone, train yourself to be a deep listener.