Sunday, March 07, 2010

Deep Listening

One of the more difficult concepts which we teach is the power of listening. Such an old idea, so commonly taught, so rarely applied. In our training we have a section in which participants role play handling a crisis using a trauma informed approach. The most common problem is that people jump too quickly to offer solutions. They do not spend time to explore what the child is experiencing. In practice in our agency I hear the same thing. It is so tempting to offer advice, and so difficult to just stay with and share the other person’s pain.
We do this in spite of the fact that we ourselves do not like it when someone does this to us. What if I were to tell you that I was at my elderly father’s house last night, and I felt so tense about his deteriorating condition and what I should do that I ate two boxes of cookies? How would I feel if you responded: "Pat, there are better coping skills you can use. Next time you go there, bring some carrots." I actually might slap you. I would not even appreciate it if you told me about Visiting Nurse agencies in the area. Instead, what do I need? Some one to just say: "That sounds difficult. That must be very stressful for you."

Since I struggle to teach this is a way that people will remember it, I was struck when I recently read an interview of Thich Nhat Hanh by Oprah featured in O, The Oprah Magazine February 16, 2010. Thich Nhat Hanh has been a Buddhist monk for more than 60 years, as well as a teacher, writer, and vocal opponent of war—a stance that left him exiled from his native Vietnam for four decades. He speaks here of the incredible power of listening and not correcting:

"Oprah: The case is the same for deep listening, which I've heard you refer to.

Nhat Hanh: 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.

Oprah: I love this idea of deep listening, because often when someone comes to you and wants to vent, it's so tempting to start giving advice. But if you allow the person just to let the feelings out, and then at another time come back with advice or comments, that person would experience a deeper healing. That's what you're saying.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. 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.

Oprah: The only way to end war is communication between people.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. We should be able to say this: "Dear friends, dear people, I know that you suffer. I have not understood enough of your difficulties and suffering. It's not our intention to make you suffer more. It is the opposite. We don't want you to suffer. But we don't know what to do and we might do the wrong thing if you don't help us to understand. So please tell us about your difficulties. I'm eager to learn, to understand." We have to have loving speech. And if we are honest, if we are true, they will open their hearts. Then we practice compassionate listening, and we can learn so much about our own perception and their perception. Only after that can we help remove wrong perception. That is the best way, the only way, to remove terrorism.

Oprah: But what you're saying also applies to difficulties between yourself and family members or friends. The principle is the same, no matter the conflict.

Nhat Hanh: Right. And peace negotiations should be conducted in that manner. When we come to the table, we shouldn't negotiate right away. We should spend time walking together, eating together, making acquaintance, telling each other about our own suffering, without blame or condemnation. It takes maybe one, two, three weeks to do that. And if communication and understanding are possible, negotiation will be easier. So if I am to organize a peace negotiation, I will organize it in that way.”
(Read the full interview at

So- Listening may be a path to world peace- and it is definitely the path through which we offer connection to our children and families. It can be painful, because it necessitates opening your heart to the sadness and suffering of the other person. But it is also healing, both to our clients and to our selves.

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