Compassionate listening is an important tool in my toolbox, one that needs to be kept sharpened and ready at all times. When it’s allowed to get dull, I can’t be very effective.
In my work as a psychologist, one of the topics that come up most often is that of communication problems in our relationships. Sometimes it is a wife complaining that her husband misconstrues what she says. Or it’s a daughter feeling manipulated when her mother tells her, or doesn’t tell her, family news. At other times it is a woman in the hospital for a serious health problem complaining that her attempts to make herself understood and to ask for what she needs is seen as her being a difficult patient.
We can fail to get our point across, we can be misunderstood, and our motives for what we say can be criticized by those with whom we attempt to communicate. Naturally these ruptures in a true meeting of minds can be painful and frustrating, and sometimes they can trigger anger responses. Similarly, our loved ones, friends and others with whom we interact experience the same frustrations with us at times. It’s just the way it is. Interpersonal communications are often difficult and stressful, partly because we don’t always speak the same language, metaphorically. We “hear” different things than the other person is trying to say.
If we practice meditation, and if we focus on loving kindness, or Metta, towards and for ourselves as well as for others, we become better able to sit and hear what our loved one is saying to us. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that we say something to a loved one such as, “My darling, I am here for you.” You may wish to say it another way, but the point is to be able to invite communication from our loved one and listen as he or she speaks to us. We may be very tempted to reply to something that is said, to defend ourselves, to correct the other person, to fight back against a statement that feels harsh with harsh words of our own. But with compassionate listening, we simply hear, listen and stay aware of what we are hearing.
Later on, we may wish to correct something we heard, but during the practice of compassionate listening, we are fully present to listen and listen only. We may be quite surprised, and often pleasantly so, by what we hear. And even when the thing we hear is not so pleasant, it may be that we need to hear it, let it percolate into our being so that we might reflect upon it, and if it is true, to use the opportunity for growth and healing within ourselves.
To work on our compassionate listening skills, this sourcebook by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Cynthia Monroe and Leah Green offers many useful exercises to help us do it.
The following from Thich Nhat Hanh offers rich food for thought on this topic as well for those who wish to delve deeper:
UPDATE: In the two years since I first published this post, I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.
The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communicatin to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do.
The second impediment is the more frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with getter frequency. They may pause as they search for a certain word or familiar phrase, creating a gap in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this is can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy. Another word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t? Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”
As we ourselves get older we will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves as we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, we will naturally feel compassion as we listen.