By truly listening, I mean doing NOTHING but listening. I mean stopping whatever you are in the middle of, sitting down with them, making eye contact, and letting them talk, or cry, or whatever. I mean having your sole intention be to hear and honor their words, and witness their pain or process, with no thoughts of fixing, advising, corroborating, controlling, lecturing or judging. I mean having the words “I hear you” as your inner mantra and outward energetic message.
This kind of listening is incredibly difficult to pull off. Therapists spend years learning how to do it well. Entire curricula have been developed to help kids in school and professionals in the workplace practice it. And it was and is not necessarily modeled for us in our families of origin or practiced by our teachers, mentors, bosses, friends, co-workers or partners, so we are sort of in the dark when it comes to implementing it in our own lives.
It rarely comes naturally to “just” listen. It can feel uncomfortable and weird, especially at first, and we might have the added anxiety that we’re appearing ungenerous or detached or disinterested if we’re not responding immediately and conversationally with our thoughts and observations. But the truth is, the minute we start formulating a response, we have ceased to be truly present for the other person. We are no longer “just” listening. It has become about us. And on some level, the other person is aware of that shift in attention.
As parents, we perceive, rightly so, that part of our job is to help our children navigate life, which seems to imply finding ways to relieve their current suffering and giving lots of advice about how to avoid more suffering in the future. But when we take this good intention too far — whether with our children or anyone else — and jump in with our advice or opinion, rather than allowing the other person to express themselves to completion, we potentially smother something extremely precious.
When we attempt to take away the pain with our solution or “fix”, we more often than not derail or freeze a necessary out-pouring of emotion that might have allowed the person to move through to the other side. So if we are instead able to “just” listen mindfully and remain present for what is arising in the other person, we provide a safe foundation from which they can potentially integrate what is happening, on their own terms, not ours. In effect, we are simply allowing enough space for true self-healing to occur.
We are ALL looking for a safe and loving place to share our story, our sorrow, our joy, our confusion, our pain, our wonder, our fear. We search for this on the meditation cushion and with our healers and therapists, and we hope to find it in our family and community as well. We are NOT always looking for a solution, a way out, or even corroboration. We are often just looking for a witness, someone there to observe us navigating our life, our emotions, our thoughts, without attempting to influence or control us. Basically, we want someone to “hold” us while we cry, or laugh, or communicate. And we want to feel anchored, so we might avoid drifting away on the tumultuous seas of our own story.
In meditation, we become our own witness, our own anchor. In the version of meditation I practice (Insight, or Vipassana), our job is to sit and be a container for whatever sensations, emotions and thoughts come up inside of us, and simply acknowledge them, without suppressing or clinging to them, and without judgement. Our job is to listen mindfully, patiently and lovingly — to ourselves.
One of the most compelling reasons to meditate, in my experience, is to practice this non-judgemental awareness in the laboratory of our own bodies and minds, so we can flex and strengthen those muscles for when we’re out in the world, dealing with other people. The idea is to become better at listening, TRULY listening, to ourselves, so we can also be that person for those we encounter “out there”. Because one of the most profoundly beautiful and potentially transformative gifts we can offer anyone is to listen mindfully, with our ears and all of our heart, to what it is they need to tell us.
[For fun, allow yourself for a moment to imagine how society at large might be positively affected if we as individuals felt truly heard on a regular basis.]
An act of mindful, conscious, present listening is one of the deepest forms of respect we have to offer another. But since it doesn’t necessarily come naturally, we need to practice it, in meditation, and in our day-to-day life. To that end, here is a simple ritual you can enjoy with your family. It’s about listening, and respect, and kindness. Which means it’s also about love. 😉
A useful way to practice showing and receiving respect in a family or group setting is by using a Sharing Stick to symbolize and ritualize honoring someone else’s words, time and existence when speaking and listening. This is the same principle as the traditional Talking Stick used so successfully in many indigenous tribes in order to ensure democratic council meetings.
Go on a family walk to find a beautiful stick to use for this practice. It is also fun to decorate it with string, beads, feathers — whatever you like!
You can use the stick during a normal conversation (taking turns telling a story from your day, for example), or as a tool to help air out and possibly resolve a conflict (for instance, if your children have gotten into a fight and each thinks the other is at fault and has strong emotions around what happened). It is always nice to sit in a circle when practicing this ritual.
With the Sharing Stick practice, everyone has a turn to talk, and the person whose turn it is holds the stick while they are speaking. The rest of the family or group practices making a conscious effort to truly listen to the other person, without interruption or comment. The person gets to talk until they truly feel done and “heard” before the stick passes to the next person.
If an open-ended time period becomes an issue, you can use a timer. But do your best to stay with the concept of allowing everyone as much time as they need to truly feel heard.
Here is a little affirmation you can say with your children before beginning:
When I hold the Sharing Stick I share my truth.
When you hold the Sharing Stick, I listen with my ears and all of my heart.
When we speak our truth and listen with our hearts, we respect ourselves and each other.
Happy sharing, and happy listening!