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The Gift of Listening

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Start your journey of self-discovery though the insights and stories of Angela Von Werder.

The Gift of Listening

Angela von Werder

Introduced by the United Nations in 1982, September 21 is the International Day of Peace; and calls upon the world to consider how we can live more peaceably. In 2013, for the first time, Peace Day was dedicated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to peace education, the key preventive means to reduce war sustainably. What can we learn and what can we teach to advance this noble necessity? We can learn to listen, and we can teach others by our example.

Some years ago, while studying conflict resolution, we were given an assignment to choose a sensitive subject, or one that we had a strong opinion about. We then partnered with a classmate who represented the opposing view. The topics were along the lines of: the right to life, gun control, the ethical treatment of animals, welfare, euthanasia, safe injection sites for addicts, and so on. Any topic that could easily incite emotional imbalance was acceptable.

This was not a debate class. We were not asked to defend or expound our point of view. The class was about learning how to frame questions to help us understand the opposite opinion. The work (and it began as deeply challenging work) was to become genuinely curious about someone who strongly disagreed with our beliefs, and to respect and honour their point of view. We jumped in and gave it our best because we all believed that unless the human population finds a way to live peaceably together on tiny planet Earth, our future would soon tip from its present precarious balance into certain ruin. We learned to listen, with the spirit of genuine curiosity, and took a step towards conflict resolution.

What greater joy do we experience than sharing our beliefs, ideas and visions with others, and have them agree with us? Often we imagine ourselves to be in conversation, when really what we are doing is seeking praise, agreement, and trying to establish that we’re ‘right’ about our opinions. While we are doing this, we deny the other the very gift we so deeply crave; the gift of being understood, of being heard, of being listened to. The first step then, to giving this gift of peace, is to set aside our personal conversational agenda, and take a chance on becoming slightly vulnerable. Trusting that no harm will come to us if we may be led to change our minds, we can give the gift of listening.

The most base, and the most common, is cursory, self centered listening. Attune your ears to those about you and notice that the greatest number of conversations is held at this level. We all do it from time to time, especially when in the company of people who we believe are less important. We hear another person speaking, watch their mouth move, take in some of the words, interpret what suits us, what is familiar, and simultaneously think about what we are going to say when they are finally finished talking. We can’t wait to formulate our response and download our insightful wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Rather than listen to what their heart is saying, we wait for the first chance to deliver our brilliance.

The price of this cursory listening is to forgo the pleasure of empathic human contact. And if it is a conversation with one of our inner circle of friends or family, or someone we admire, this becomes especially poignant if it is the last time we see them – for really, how are we to know? In hindsight, we realize their meaning when it is too late; and reflect upon what we might have heard in the moment, and didn’t, due to our self-importance. What a wasted opportunity! To catch the jest of this, the next time you’re speaking with someone, ‘pan out’ slightly, engage your observer self, and begin to notice how your inner dialogue has already started while the other person is still talking; observe the ceaseless chatter of your ‘monkey mind’.

The second, deeper level of listening, involves being relaxed and less obsessed with communicating our point of view. More fully present in the conversation, we engage with what the other is saying; we’re not just hearing them speak. We delay formulating our response until after digesting what has been said. We take a moment to process the information, avoid glossing over something we do not understand. We clarify, question, and elucidate. We do not mind appearing a little foolish because we missed a point or didn’t get the punch line. We enjoy the relief of a conversation where no one is interrupting before the end of a thought or the end of a sentence. A simple way to begin this deeper kind of listening is to pause briefly before speaking, waiting to be sure that the other has actually finished what they want to say. Give some thought to the implication of their words. Try to understand their meaning, noticing that what they meant may not be exactly what they said, or precisely what you think you heard.

The third level of listening involves being fully present, openly receiving the speaker’s message – mentally, emotionally and spiritually. At the same time, we attune our minds to whatever universal ideas, or thoughts or feelings may also be present. Here, we invite our intuition as a third party into the conversation, with the intention of illuminating perspectives neither person is yet aware of. We experience ‘aha!’ moments when an undetected element of sympathy or insight pours forth and suddenly the conversation becomes expansive in a surprising way. These fleeting moments are generally followed by thoughts of gratitude or appreciation; we feel the unity of love. Such lucid discussions leave impressions upon our consciousness that remain long after they are over. Invariably, this higher level of listening generates a positive, optimistic mood; even when the gleaning is foreign, or perhaps especially then. This is the gift of learning, the descent of a connection to greater consciousness.

A fourth, intensified kind of listening is more difficult still, because it involves transforming our emotional selves. It’s an altruistic kind of listening during which we give up something and get nothing in return. It’s a kind of listening that can make good, disappointment, betrayal, or an unexpected slight. It is, possibly the best response, to the realization that that the other party (whom we thought we knew) does not share the common values we believed united us. Usually we can look back and notice that the warning signs were there, but we chose to listen or observe selectively. We heard what we wanted to hear, rather than really listening to what was said. Perhaps it was an underlying tone or the emotional vein of a conversation that we chose to ignore. Because we didn’t address it at the time, because we were preoccupied with our own needs, wants, opinions, or trying to appear savvy, we overlooked the trip wire and got hurt from the fall.

Suddenly, painfully, we are given the gift of the opportunity to listen with our hearts. We can now bring our best, most loving, opened self to the conversation. This ‘heart listening’ generates a compassionate flow of love. Behind the sharp pain of rejection, chastisement or even being ostracized, we can relax into a state of acceptance, and raise the conversation to a meditative, reflective state. Here, with the aid of creative imagination, we can visualize the flow of love from heart to heart. The willingness to honor the other person’s values as meaningful to them, and dispersing the beginnings of resentment, is the path to peace. “Love your enemies, pray for those that despitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matt 5:44) Why? Because this is the way to freedom and love, this is the basis for understanding, and genuine fellowship of the spirit. Because if we do not, the emotional turmoil we permit within ourselves in reaction to the behaviour of others then possesses us, and we begin to identify as a victim; and as a victim we forfeit our ability to change our circumstances.

Additionally, there are many listening ‘skills’ that we can learn: active and reflective listening, paraphrasing, reframing and so on. These are the tools of professionals, and why sessions with them feel so liberating. We can learn much about ourselves from someone who knows how to bring it out by listening to us. For most, a heartfelt presence and genuine interest in the person speaking, while withholding our need to demonstrate our own greatness and superior knowledge will work real conversational magic. Suspending our opinions while someone else is speaking alleviates the all too familiar frustration of not feeling heard.

Practicing awareness, aspiring to listen with an open mind, an open heart and an open agenda, will go far towards establishing peace within ourselves, our families, communities, and at work. We can even agree to disagree and be united in that. In so doing, we create a more peaceful world. We become authors of paradise on Earth. The habit and practice of truly listening, given freely, gratefully, lovingly, is the path to sustainable peace.

photo: Sunrise over Howe Sound, BC; UvW