Dharma Reflections

Careful Listening

by | Sep 13, 2013

In my last post I touched on the fundamental role that empathy plays in helping us live happy, meaningful lives. Careful listening is an expression of empathy. It’s probably one of the most powerful and useful skills we can practice. It’s the basis of wholesome relationships and a remedy for relationships that are not working. When we are able to listen carefully, we earn the other person’s trust and respect, which in turn can help them listen to our views.

A better way?

If careful listening is so helpful, why don’t we do more of it? For instance, I sometimes wonder why many politicians have lost the trust and respect of the electorate? There may be many reasons, but perhaps one of the biggest is the way they talk at each other, rather than with each other. Can we create sustainable solutions with this approach, or is there a better way?

Loosing energy?

Like politicians, many of us fail the careful listening test, because we have a point to make or an argument to ‘win’. But by insisting on being right we risk loosing the chance to genuinely relate with the other person. We’ve all had those ‘I’m right’ moments, when we get busy mentally organising our arguments, rather than carefully listening to what the other person is saying. A lot is lost when this happens. Think about it. Not only do we loose the chance for a deep connection with the other person and the chance to mutually arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth of the subject, but we also tangibly loose energy in the process. Argument for arguments sake lowers the vitality in the room, although it does raise decibel and blood pressure levels.

Talking sticks

Wisdom traditions recognised that our ‘need to be right’ limits our approach to deep understanding. The indigenous people of the Northwest Coast of America emphasised the sacred nature of careful listening with the use of the ‘talking stick’, also called the speaker’s staff. The talking stick was passed around a group, from member to member, as a symbol of the authority and right to speak. Only the person holding the stick was allowed to speak, which enabled everyone present to voice their views and be heard by others. Not only did the ceremonial use of the stick emphasise the sacred nature of speaking and listening, but more practically it allowed those who were shy to have their say. It also limited the long-winded from dominating the conversation. The use of the talking stick focuses everyone’s mind, which helps them empathetically hear also with their hearts the feelings and experience of others.

Simple steps

Experienced negotiators learn the importance of careful listening and teach some basic steps to achieve it, starting with making the effort to listen. Steven Covey recommends that we ‘seek to understand and then be understood’, which means asking good questions and letting the other person go first. Concentrating and staying focused also help. Keeping the exchange sacred by taking turns, not allowing interruptions and keeping respectful even if you don’t like what you are hearing is essential to good listening. Maybe most important is the mental attitude of your approach. Collaborative is more effective than persuasive.

What really is careful listening?

The Vedic wisdom tradition, which has a long history of debate in the pursuit of the truth, describes three qualitative ways to communicate. The first one is called jalpa, where the speaker is filled with a passion to establish the superiority of her point of view. Some listening is involved, but only for the intent of winning. Think ego and the need to dominate, what the Vedas call rajasic or characterised by intensity and drive. Then there is vitanda, where there is little if any listening and the intent is to demolish the other person’s point of view. The quality of this approach is tamasic or destructive. The last one, vada, is where genuine careful listening takes place. Vada is the collaborative pursuit of the truth, where both parties approach the dialogue with respect and an open mind. The mood here is to share, explore and understand, to find common ground while also appreciating the differences that add depth and contrast to the subject. This type of exchange is characterised by the quality of sattva, which is gentle, nurturing, illuminating and sustaining – all the fruits of careful listening.

Careful listening is an expression of empathy, but it also creates empathy because it helps us understand, imagine and ‘feel into’ another person’s reality. Careful listening improves the quality and depth of any relationship, personal or professional. Careful listening empowers everyone.

Careful listening is fundamental to my work. It’s a skill I’ve cultivated for many years. I continue to work at being a better listener and find that there are always deeper levels of listening open to me and the people I work with. It always amazes me how much energy and transformation is created by listening carefully. It really is worth the effort.
Next time

In my next blog I will build on the subjects of empathy and careful listening, talking about how they support you in speaking your truth as well as the choices you make that can create dynamic relationships.


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