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The Lost Art of Listening

By Kay Lindahl and kathe schaaf

The North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, last July included a visit to a Hindu temple where a meal was shared along with questions, stories, and new friendships, all depending on everyone listening very carefully to each other.

The North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, last July included a visit to a Hindu temple where a meal was shared along with questions, stories, and new friendships, all depending on everyone listening very carefully to each other.

Respectful communication is at the heart of all interfaith gatherings. We know that it is one of the most important components for building relationships of peace and harmony across faith traditions and belief systems. The focus of this essay is on the importance of the art of listening in interfaith dialogue and practices that support us in becoming more effective listeners.

If we think of speaking and listening as two of the major elements of communication, most often speaking is thought of as the more powerful role; it certainly gets the most attention. My experience is that the role of listening is even more powerful, although one seldom recognized or understood. For example, we often hear someone comment “That was a really powerful speech.”  I’ve never heard anyone say: “That was a really powerful way to listen.

The quality of our listening can make a profound difference in any conversation. As Quaker author Douglas Steere puts it: “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” Remember what it is like when someone is fully listening to you. Both the listener and the speaker expand their sense of connection and closeness. When two people listen deeply to one another, we sense that we are present not only to each other, but also to something beyond our individual selves, something spiritual, holy, or sacred. Artists call this aesthetic rapture; mystics call it ecstasy; athletes call it being in the zone; jazz musicians say they are in the groove. It’s as though time stands still and we are simply being in the experience. These are the conversations that we treasure in our hearts. Martin Buber talks about it this way: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” As we open up to listening as a spiritual practice, we find it inspires our spiritual growth, nurtures our inner voice, and transforms all of our relationships.

I have spent the past 14 years focusing on the art of listening. When people find out about my work, one of the first things they say is: “That’s wonderful! We could all learn how to listen better.” This is followed almost immediately by: “Would you talk to my husband, my wife, my boss, my partner, my sister, my brother, my kids?” It seems that we all know someone we wish would listen to us better. While this may be true, if we step back a little, we may also discover that we are the one who needs to be a better listener to someone else.  This implies that everyone needs to learn how to truly listen to others.

Research on listening indicates that we spend about 80% of our waking hours communicating: writing 9%, reading 16%, speaking 30% and 45 to 50 percent of our day engaged in listening, to people, music, TV, radio, etc. About 75 percent of that time we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the United States is 22 seconds. It’s no surprise to note the length of television commercials, usually anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds.  This constant change of focus makes it more difficult to listen for any significant length of time. Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what they have said. A few hours later we remember only about 10 to 20 percent. Yet, less than 5 percent of us have ever concentrated on developing our skills in listening. When people hear these numbers, they often say: “This is so interesting. I know that I spend hours preparing to speak. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously prepared to listen.

Listening has become a lost art. The information age and the revolution in technology are a mixed blessing. They have made us aware of our global community and given us the tools to communicate with each other 24 hours a day. They have also influenced how we learn to listen. In years past, most people ate dinner together, where they learned the art of communication, including listening. We also had more silence in public spaces, a time to listen. Even television and movies had more silence in them, a time to absorb and listen. If you watch old movies or television shows you will notice that actors spoke more slowly. Watching television today offers poor examples of listening, lots of interrupting, shouting, not paying attention to the speaker. So we have no consistent models of good listening.

What I’ve discovered over these past few years is that the work that I do is all about teaching people how to prepare to listen—to become a listening presence. Most of us have had the experience of preparing to give a speech or make a presentation. There are classes in public speaking available in almost every community. We know where to go to learn how to refine and develop presentation skills. For the most part we never even think about what it might mean to prepare to listen—to become a true listening presence no matter what the situation much less how to go about doing so.

I believe that to become that presence we need to prepare—not only to listen to others but also to listen to ourselves and to God. Just as we take time to write, practice and polish a speech we need to take time to practice and prepare to listen. Three practices are essential elements of this spiritual discipline: cultivating silence, slowing down to reflect, and becoming present.

Cultivating Silence

There is no listening without silence and yet silence is often hard to come by in our society. It’s taking time to slow down and listen.  We are so busy running around doing things.  This is the practice of stopping for a moment, being quiet, learning to listen to the silence.  It’s like a farmer who allows the soil to be fallow for awhile, plowing, yet not planting - resting.  It is the silence out of which we listen more deeply. Take some time each day to practice being silent. There are all kinds of contemplative and meditative practices from which to choose. Being at ease with silence is a practice that will transform our capacity to listen. We find we have more space around us to hear those who are not like us or whose opinions we disagree with.

Slowing Down to Reflect

Reflective listening is listening to ourselves—our True Selves—getting to know the voice of our souls. In deepening our relationship to ourselves, we develop sensitivity to our own inner voice. Once we learn to know and trust this voice, we find ourselves able to recognize when we need to speak and when we need to listen. There is a Quaker saying: “It’s a sin to speak when you’re not moved to speak. It’s also a sin not to speak when you’re moved to speak.” Reflection teaches us to recognize what we are being called to do—listen or speak. There’s a Sufi saying that also relates to this aspect of reflective listening. Before speaking ask yourself these questions: “Are these words true? Are these words necessary? Are these words kind?” If the answer is yes to all three, it is only then that speech is as good as silence.

How do we get to know this inner voice? It’s a practice of listening for the questions. Take a few breaths before responding to a situation, question, or comment. Ask yourself what wants to be said next—not, what do I want to say (from the ego) but what wants to be said (from the soul)? Or what wants to be done next? Wait for your inner voice to respond. Listen for your true wisdom to reveal itself. This practice entails slowing down, waiting, being patient.

Becoming Present

Becoming present—listening from the heart, listening in a way that connects us—is the third practice that supports the sacred art of listening. Deep listening occurs at the heart level. We know we are present when we feel most connected to another person or to a group of people. Our hearts expand, and our capacity to communicate with those of differing beliefs and customs increases. Becoming a listening presence is also about hospitality, offering space where change can take place, where there’s a freedom to be. It’s being fully present with another. I call this heart listening. When hearts listen, angels sing.

A practice that supports this kind of listening is to take a mindful minute each day. Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as sitting down and noticing what’s happening, moment by moment—when you are eating, brushing your teeth, preparing your meals, driving your car, getting dressed. Be aware of what you are doing for each second of that minute. Stay in the present. You may find that this mindful minute is the only one you remember at the end of the day. We are so used to multi-tasking, always trying to do at least two things at once. We can be truly present with only one thing at a time. The daily practice of taking a mindful minute helps us look at things that are mundane, ordinary and every day and see the richness in them.  It trains our concentration, and our ability to listen in the present moment improves.  

Really listening to one another is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. It requires our full attention. It calls for a mindset of appreciation, curiosity, and wonder for the other person. We cannot listen if we are thinking about what we are going to say in response or how we would handle the situation. Really listening is communicating from the heart. We need to practice if we are to let go of our own agendas and be present with another. Even with the best of intentions to be open to understanding those with different points of view, a part of us often holds on to our own agenda. On some level we have the notion that if we just listen to them long enough, they will come around to our way of thinking. The practice of letting go, really letting go, is invaluable to this aspect of deep listening.

The simplicity of these ideas about the three aspects of sacred listening, silence, reflection, and presence, is deceptive. It requires commitment and a desire to become a better listener. The spiritual discipline of regular daily practice must be cultivated every day. It is the core of transformation. Be prepared for transformative experiences as the organic, non-linear quality of these practices—being at ease with silence, sensing of the voice of our soul, and being fully present—become a seamless dance and a conduit for God’s love.