Cathy-Hird-listening-fullBy Cathy Hird
Recently, in the middle of a busy activity, a woman started to tell me about a vitriolic email that she received. She jumped in quickly summarizing the list of criticisms of the program and the angry words. When I simply nodded, she demanded, "Say something."

I could have just said, "You're right; that's terrible," but that would not have shown compassion or understanding. Also, in her quick summary, I sympathized with some of the content she mentioned although not the tone.

I told her that when she started I was still thinking about something that had happened earlier, and that I had not tuned in quickly to her account. I had missed the full context. Could she begin again, tell me who had sent this and what exactly had been written.

We started over.

This experience reminded me that listening is hard work. The physical part of picking out a person's words when there is lots of background noise is only part of the challenge.

First, there is all the stuff going on in our head. To hear what someone is saying we have to tune out our own thoughts and focus on theirs. We have to leave the topic we are busy with for the moment and shift to the topic on their mind in order to listen. We switch channels from ours to theirs.

We also have to leave our expectations and actually listen to what is said. We've all had the experience of thinking we know what someone is going to say, so that's what we hear. "Yes, I'll buy bread," or sure we can go see "Pixels." The response we get: "You weren't listening!" because they actually said we needed milk, or they wanted to see the new Mission Impossible movie. When what is said is not what we expected, it takes more focus to hear it.

Now that the election has been called, we may listen to an argument about who our friend is voting for in order to argue in favour of who we are planning to vote for. Here, we are not listening to understand but listening in order to respond. The conversation will be a kind of sparring match. When we seek to understand the other, we have to stop thinking about what we are going to say and just listen.

I know a couple people who are pretty attentive listeners, but they are also problem solvers. They listen sympathetically to the description of a problem, but as soon as there is a gap in the description, they give a list of things that could be done to fix the problem. Some of their ideas are good. Sometimes what they suggest is exactly what is needed. Too often, it feels like they do not understand how hard the situation is because they come up with a snap solution.

Often, the other person does not need us to respond. They only need us to listen. They need us to hear their concern. They need someone to understand how they are feeling, what they are worried about, why they are anxious. They don't need us judge what they are saying. They don't need us to answer what they are saying. They just need to be heard.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about listening in his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. He says "Deep listening, compassionate listening is not listening with the purpose of listen first of all in order to give the other person relief, a chance to speak out, to feel that someone understands him or her. Deep listening is the kind of listening that helps us keep compassion alive while the other speaks." (p 93) He argues that listening is not just an act of the ears and the mind. Deep listening is from the heart and requires the whole body of the listener. For him, listening requires compassion because compassion both opens us to understand the other and protects us from getting caught up by what we hear. He also says listening requires practice.

Listening is a gift. Deep listening can be transformative. Compassionate caring is the motivation that brings us into another's presence and opens us to hear.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.


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