The Lost Art of Listening
I’d had one of those weeks where it feels as if your life story is being scripted by someone with an extremely warped and dark sense of humour.
Think Ricky Gervais … with a touch of Stephen King.
It had left me feeling cried out, worn out, wrung out, and I was desperate to get the advice of a really good friend.
So I messaged a really good friend and said: Could really do with your advice. Please can we meet? Caffeine on me!
Thankfully, my friend readily agreed. And as soon as I saw him in the cafe my tension eased.
‘So, what’s up?’ he said as we took our seats.
I started to tell him about the source of my angst, which was work-related.
Within a few seconds, my friend cut in.
‘Oh my God, you’ll never guess what happened to me at work this week…’ He then proceeded to deliver a 20 minute monologue on all the things that were going well in his work life and how spoiled for choice he felt.
At one point, I tried to interject, but as I spoke, he looked away with a slightly glazed expression and I could tell he was back to thinking about him and what he was going to say next.
It was hard not to feel the sharp sting of rejection. He knew I needed to talk – and yet he’d used it as a launchpad to steer the subject straight on to him.
I sat there, smarting, and decided to not even bother trying.
But the thing is, I know I’m not entirely blameless here. I know that there have been times when I’ve been so excited / happy / sad / angry / frustrated that I’ve been bubbling over with the desire to share. And, if I’m with a friend, I’ve used something they’ve said as the launchpad to talk about what I want to.
But I’ve got a hell of a lot better at listening in recent years, thanks to the practise of mindful listening.
Mindful listening originates from the Buddhist tradition but it’s one of those great spiritual practises that anyone can – and in my opinion, should – do.
I first came across the concept when I went to a Buddhist meeting a few years ago.
There were about fifteen of us at the meeting, all sitting on chairs in a circle.
The woman running the meeting invited us to each share something that was on our mind or how we were truly feeling and the rest of the group were instructed to keep our attention firmly focused on the speaker, with the intention of truly listening.
No matter what the person said, or how compelled we might feel to offer our advice or perspective, no-one else was allowed to speak. All we had to do was listen.
Well, I say ‘all’ but to truly listen without distraction can be really difficult. As I discovered when the first woman began to speak, giving a detailed breakdown of the minutiae of her day, right down what she had on her toast for breakfast and the particular A road she’d taken to the meeting.
Instead of truly listening, I started truly judging.
Why is she telling us all this? This isn’t what we’re supposed to be talking about. We’re supposed to be talking about how we’re feeling, I muttered away inside my head.
Then I turned my judgy thoughts on the concept of mindful listening itself: What even is the point of this, if we can’t even give advice or feedback? How is this in any way helpful to the person speaking?
Then a man started talking about how he was struggling in the wake of his separation from his wife.
My judgy thoughts ceased and I leaned in closer.
As the man opened up to us I could feel the energy in the room shift, as everyone’s rapt attention focused in on him … holding him, supporting him.
When he came to a close I wondered if he wished one of us would say something – offer him an empathetic account from our own lives or a pearl of wisdom – but the man seemed genuinely grateful.
‘Thank you,’ he whispered, his eyes glassy with tears. ‘Thank you.’
And then it was my turn.
I started by telling the group how I was finding it a bit stressful moving to a brand new town where I didn’t really know anyone but I quickly segued into what was really on my mind – the serious illness of a loved one.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know these people from Adam … or Eve.
It didn’t matter that I was letting them see the rawest, most delicate part of me, because I could feel their full and undivided attention enclosing me – and it felt so safe and so, so good.
In this world of constant distractions – from our egos and our fears to our phones – the greatest gift we can give another is to really be present for them and truly, mindfully listen without distraction, without judgement … without words.
Find out more…
You can find out more about mindful listening in my new book Something More…a spiritual Misfit’s Search for Meaning here.