He was sitting on a park bench. He was holding a simple cardboard sign that read Willing to Listen. A woman in her middle years was walking by and noticed the man and his sign and she looked at him - tilted her head with that quizzical look that sort of says, “What? Really?” He looked back at her and gestured for her to sit down beside him. She did. His face was calm and open. He said nothing. Then, she began to talk. He listened. Then she was crying – not sobbing, just that sort of quiet crying when the tears come and spill out of your eyes and roll down your cheeks. He said nothing. She talked a little bit more. Then she stopped. She wiped her eyes. She smiled. He smiled. She said, “I feel much better now. I don’t have anyone who will listen to me about this. Thank you.” He said, “You’re welcome.” She got up. He stayed where he was. As she walked away, she gave him a little wave and he smiled. Then she was gone and he was sitting quietly with his sign beside him on the bench.
"Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden.”
She wasn’t there very long really. Two minutes. Maybe five. No more than that. They were strangers. He didn’t fix anything. He didn’t try to explain away her pain. He didn’t offer any advice or tell her what to do. He gave her the one thing that she, apparently, needed - - the chance to have someone listen completely without interruption or judgement.
Sarah Conover, a Unitarian Universalist author tells a story about a time when she landed at the Spokane International Airport after a trip away from home. It was late. She needed a ride home and she looked for a taxi. What she saw was an old beat up Honda Civic with a makeshift sign on the roof that read TAXI. It was rather dubious, but being the only ride in sight, Sarah walked over to the car.
With enthusiasm and consideration, a young man jumped out of the car to help me. He took my bag and placed it gingerly in the trunk as I seated myself in the back seat.
“Where are you from?” I asked in the most un-offensive way I could muster. These days, that simple query can be radioactive. His body stiffened and he examined my face in the rear view mirror, determining if I were friend or foe.
“Afghanistan,” he said, after a long pause. I’d never met an Afghani before; that’s why I couldn’t recognize his accent.
“That’s amazing!” I responded. “Tell me about your long journey to Spokane, Washington.”
He turned around to look at me directly and I saw a face scarred both externally and internally. A thirty-something whose features detailed a difficult life journey. He smiled, turned back to the windshield and began to drive.
In the six miles between the airport and my home, in the suddenly intimate bubble of his car, I listened and learned. He was fluent not only in English, but in three other languages as well. His father, a general in the Afghan army, had been shot by the Taliban. The general’s only son, he’d escaped to Russia where he lived for seven years. After that he lived in Jordan and Turkey until he finally attained a special visa to move to the US. Landing in California with an Afghani community, he eventually ended up in Spokane where a close friend invited him to settle.
“How’s our town been treating you?”
Instantly, he wavered between crying and ranting. Tears welled while his hands gesticulated hotly. “You Americans don’t know how to be hospitable! Arab cultures treat everyone like family if you are our guest”—he pantomimed an embrace—“but here, after a year, I might only get a short little bro fist. I don’t have a chance to be friends. People look at me like I don’t belong here and say as much.
Clearly, he had needed an American willing to listen.
We may think that listening is just something we do. It comes naturally because we are such a language oriented species. We may even think that we ourselves are good listeners, and maybe you are. I won’t take that away from you. But I also will say that most of us most of the time are actually not very good listeners, at least not in the way that transforms people.
Far too often when I begin to listen to what someone else is saying I lose track and I go off on my own inner journey. My mind wanders. I’m making an evaluation about the speaker, a judgement about the person or the story or the motivation or the expectation.
The folks who study our listening behavior tell us that in the studies they conduct, there are some common behaviors.
- We let one thing the person says take us into our own imagination and we’re no longer present to the speaker
- We hear the beginning of what she is saying and then we are busy formulating our own thoughts, reactions and responses and are no longer offering our undivided attention
- We allow our internal judgments to overtake the desire to listen without judgement – Is he really that stupid? Did she really just say that she lost her temper with her toddler? Are they one of those weird-o religious zealots? I think this person doesn’t understand how things actually work. What does she want from me anyway? Well, they don’t deserve anything other than what they’re getting.
- We begin talking over the other person – saying, oh I’ve been through something like and I know just what you mean and then the other person no longer has the chance to have someone listen.
Now if you think that you don’t do any of these things that derail your efforts to be a good listener .... Ask your spouse, your kids, your friends – or – just begin to pay close attention to your own behavior and see if maybe you do - sometimes. So frustrating. So common.
Yet, we can learn to be better listeners.
Rachel Naomi Ramen is a physician. Her patients are frequently being treated for cancer or some chronic and debilitating condition. It’s her job to listen; to pay attention; to discern and diagnose and offer some relief from suffering. She says it has been hard to learn how to listen, to allow the sacred silence and to be fully present to her patient.
"I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it's given from the heart. One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted her to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them.
Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.
This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. it certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words."
Now, I want to suggest that this same practice of deep listening, or what some teachers call compassionate listening, can change the world. Too big an assertion? Maybe. But Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that not only do we have the capacity to change the world through listening, but indeed, listening may well be the best way to heal our world.
We all know that if we love someone, if we truly want to make someone happy, the first thing we must cultivate is the art of listening, because listening is very healing. If we spend time listening to the pain of the person we love, he or she will be relieved. And listening without judging releases pain. In the evocation of bodhisattva’s name we read this: ‘We evoke your name “Avalokiteshvara”. We aspire to learn your way of listening, in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We evoke your name in order to practise listening with all our attention and open heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what the other person is leaving unsaid. We know that, just by listening deeply, we alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.” [From a talk given at the Thich Nhat Hanh Retreat September 1991. First published in the February 1992 Buddhism Now.]
So, we know this can work with people we love. Many of us are asking a different question right now. We are asking ourselves and each other: How can I connect with people who are at the opposite end of the political or social or religious continuum? Just this morning, I heard it again on NPR as I was driving here. The speaker is from Appalachia. He is a best-selling author and he was talking about the great divide in our country and how it seems to him that many of us are perfectly willing to write off whole groups of people based on regional and cultural characteristics that we neither share nor appreciate. Ultimately, he said, what the people from Appalachia want most is for people to listen to them, just to listen to what they have to say without prejudice or judgement.
I say that I want to understand them. I say that I want them to understand me. It begins by being willing to listen – to just shut up and lean in and listen without interruption or distraction. This is the greatest gift we can give each other.
Thich Nhat Hanh spoke with Oprah Winphrey about this very thing and I found his teaching compelling. Here is a bit of Thay’s teaching.
Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.
Deep listening helps us to recognize the existence of wrong perceptions in the other person and wrong perceptions in us. The other person has wrong perceptions about himself and about us. And we have wrong perceptions about ourselves and the other person. And that is the foundation for violence and conflict and war. The terrorists, they have the wrong perception. They believe that the other group is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a civilization. So they want to abolish us, to kill us before we can kill them. And the antiterrorist may think very much the same way—that these are terrorists and they are trying to eliminate us, so we have to eliminate them first. Both sides are motivated by fear, by anger, and by wrong perception. But wrong perceptions cannot be removed by guns and bombs. They should be removed by deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving space.
Listening is a real and life-saving gift that we can give to another person.
Maybe a few of you would try to sit on a bench in Central Park with a sign that says Willing to Listen and just wait for folks to come sit beside you. It would be fascinating and I think rewarding. Probably we’re not going to do that, so what do we do to practice a willingness to listen that will change our hearts and the world?
In order to connect with another person – especially one who is quite different from ourselves – we must be able to do three things.
- Seek understanding before trying to persuade
- We all carry wrong perceptions, be open to correcting our own wrong perceptions
- Practice deep, compassionate listening. Suffering and pain spill out of us and we can begin to see differently
It is then, in the holy quiet space of listening that hearts and minds open and love can enter in.
May we be the ones who are willing to listen, deeply and with compassion, so that Love can enter in.
Blessed Be. I Love You. Amen.