A Little Book of Listening Skills


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52 essential practices for profoundly loving yourself and other people.

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A Little Book of Listening Skills

  1. 1. A Little Book of Listening Skills 52 Essential practises for profoundly loving yourself and other people By Mark Brady, Ph.D and Jennifer Austin Leigh
  2. 2. When Someone Deeply Listens To YouWhen someone deeply listens to youIt is like holding out a dented cupyou’ve had since childhoodand watching it fill up withcold, fresh water.When it balances on top of the brim,You are understood.When it overflows and touches your skin,You are loved.When someone deeply listens to youThe room where you stayStarts a new lifeAnd the place where you wroteYour first poemBegins to glow in your mind’s eyeIt is as if gold has been discovered!When someone deeply listens to youYour bare feet are on the earthAnd a beloved land that seemed distantIs now at home within you.John Fox2
  3. 3. Table of Contents“I just need you to listen to me.”1. Stop talking so much!2. Don’t interrupt unnecessarily3. Create an atmosphere of trust4. Listen for disrespect5. Listen for mutual purpose6. Be slow to disagree, argue or criticize7. Pay attention to the need for conversation control8. Cultivate “Beginner’s Ear”9. Get comfortable with silence10. Manage emotional reactivity11. Avoid “should-ing” on people12. Stop when your energy flags13. Establish support for speaking truth to powerSection One Reflection Questions 3
  4. 4. “Listen and understand me.”14. Regularly practice kenosis15. Listen for feelings16. Listen as a caregiver17. Practise the Golden Rule of Listening18. Avoid letting your story take over their story19. Check for meaning20. Listen for content not delivery21. Be genuinely curious22. Listen for underlying needs23. Identify defensiveness; practice non-defensiveness24. Listen for differences25. Relax and Laugh26. Develop “second attention at the edge”Section Two Reflection Questions4
  5. 5. “What is it you are not saying?”27. Learn to let go28. Listen between the words29. Champion the timid voice30. Listen for inconsistencies31. Listen with a soft belly32. Return to the needs of the present moment33. Develop methods for self listening34. Cultivate patience35. Become someone who can bear hard truths36. Be mindful of age, race and gender bias37. Break the “I “ habit38. Ask specific, clarifying questions39. Say what’s useful; say what’s trueSection Three Reflection Questions 5
  6. 6. “Sit down here and tell me about it.”40. Say what you see41. Use intention clarification42. Maximise the listening environment43. Learn to listen to your own lacunae44. Practise Strategic Questioning45. The ears can be ready when the heart’s just not46. Don’t blame the victim47. Recognize your own “exit strategies”48. Practise the power of attunement49. Practise taking crap50. Learn to say “No”51. Watch for compassion fatigue52. Create a community of practiseSection Four Reflection Questions6
  7. 7. Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people don’t know thedifference.” – David Augsberger 7
  8. 8. “I just need you to listen to me.” A young black South African woman taught some of myfriends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circleof women from many nations and each woman had the chance to tella story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell astory of true horror – of how she had found her grandparentsslaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners,and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to dosomething. They wanted to fix it, to make it better, anything toremove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The youngwoman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She puther hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said, “I don’tneed you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.” She taught many women that day that being listened to isenough. If we can speak our story and know that others truly hear it,we are somehow healed by that. During the Truth and ReconciliationCommission hearings in South Africa, many who testified to theatrocities they had endured under apartheid would speak of beinghealed by their own testimony. They knew that many people werelistening to their story. One young man who had been blinded whena policeman shot him at the face at close range said, “I feel what hasbrought my eyesight back is to come here and tell the story. I feelwhat has been making me sick all this time is the fact that I couldn’ttell my story. But now it feels like I’ve got my sight back by cominghere and telling you the story. “ - Margaret Wheatley8
  9. 9. 1. Stop talking so much! This is the simplest and fastest change we can make to becomea more skilled listener. In conversations with others, we can directlyobserve who’s doing most of the talking. If it’s someone else that’s agood start. From here, we can employ a host of additional skills thatcan improve our listening even further. However, if we are talking a majority of the time, there arepractices we can do to shift the balance toward listening more. Thefirst thing is to notice ourselves talking and not listening. Withoutthis primary awareness, little else can happen. With this awareness, anumber of options become possible. First of all, we now have thechoice to decide to stop talking. There are many ways to accomplishthis. We can ask questions such as. “What are your views?” “What’son your mind?” “I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter.Please say more.” There are additional means of methods for passingconversations over to others as well. Smiling or nodding encouragesothers to talk. A simple statement like, “I have been doing most of thetalking; I’ll stop now and listen.” Is a direct invitation for others tospeak. The possibilities for gracefully shifting from speaking tolistening are limitless. Make up any that you feel comfortable withand practice using them. Become a skilful listener starts first with the intention to talkless and listen more. Learning to stop talking so much and to listen isa powerful step in loving ourselves and other people. In a world fullof talkers, a skilful listener shines like the Hope Diamond.Practice: Identify someone with who you often do most of the talking. Utiliseat least one skill from this book to swing the balance toward them talkingmore. What’s the experience like? 9
  10. 10. 2. Don’t interrupt unnecessarily Many times as we’re listening to another person, the thingsthey say will emotionally activate us in some way. Their words maytrigger excitement, sadness, fear or some other strong feelings in us.Such feelings can generate an uncontrollable impulse to speak, tooverride what the other person is saying in order to relieve our owninternal pressure. This is another of those impulses – like letting yourstory take over another’s (skill no. 18) – that’s important to limit onthe road to becoming a more skilful listener. When we cut people off in mid-sentence or interrupt byfinishing their thoughts out loud for them, we’re being disrespectful,and we could be harming our health! Dr. Paul Pearsall, the author ofThe Last Self-Help book You’ll Ever Need wrote, “Stop expressing,representing, and asserting yourself. Shut up and listen. Researchshows that people who interrupt are three times more likely to die ofa heart attack than those who don’t, and that (relationships) usuallyfail because of too much communication, not too little.” When we interrupt, the message we send to the speaker is,“What I have to say is more important that what you have to say. It’sso important that I can’t contain myself enough to let you finish.” Bylearning to hold our tongue in daily interactions with people, andbecoming genuinely curious about what others are saying, we greatlyimprove our listening skills and possibly our health.Practice: Pay attention to how frequently you and other people interrupt oneanother in everyday communication. Take steps to reduce your own patternof interrupting others and notice the positive effect it has on the way theyrelate to you. For example, one step you can take is to place your tongueagainst the roof of your mouth and hold it there.10
  11. 11. 3. Create an atmosphere of trust Communication that meaningfully connects people occurswhen trust exists. A good listener works skillfully to build trust. Thismeans not putting others on guard – erecting psychological defences– and having a genuine concern for their comfort and well-being. There are many ways to establish trust. Most effective is to begenuinely trustworthy. Trustworthy people rarely betray trust. Whenyour central concern is for the safety and well-being of yourself andothers, often there’s nothing special that needs to be done. Manypeople intuitively sense this authentic orientation. Although we like to think we are trustworthy, sometimes oldpatterns shaped by early life events, can cause us to allowunconscious needs, wants and desires to prevent us from fullyconcerning ourselves with the care and safety of others. Such earlylife events can keep us from taking care of ourselves as well. Learningwhat early life events may be getting in the way of skilful listening,as well as being able to create an environment of trust, is vitallyimportant to each of us. If genuine trust is to be established, suchimpacts from early life events need to be compassionately broughtinto the light of day.Practice: Who are the people you feel safe enough to tell your deepest truthsto? What are the elements that contribute to that feeling? What’s one thingyou can do to move more in the direction of being someone others deeplytrust? 11
  12. 12. 4. Listen for disrespect Think of your last conflict or disagreement. You may not be ableto clearly recall exactly what it was about, but very likely you canrecall how you felt. That’s because the seeming cause of manyconflicts – the unkept promise, the misunderstood perspective or themissed appointment – is not really what’s at the heart of the matter. Whenever conflict arises, one of two things is often taking place.(We’ll discuss the second one in the next practice.) In daily life manypeople know they feel upset, or angry, but they fail to realise deepdown they’re feeling disrespected. Disrespect is a tricky emotion. Aspeaker can feel disrespected even though the listener might not feelthey are being disrespectful. What is a skilled listener to do ifdisrespect can be easily triggered, but not easily identified? A skilful listener looks and listens for sings of another personfeeling disrespected. Some common signs are expressions of anger orsarcasm, verbal attacks, hostile body language, or refusing tocommunicate. A skilful listener inquires about these observations andasks if disrespect is an issue. Permitting the speaker time to thinkabout their true feelings, help allow room for feelings of disrespect tobe identified. Once disrespect has been identified, the listener canmove forward to work towards a solution or make any amends thatmay be necessary.Practice: Listen for the clues in the next conflict that indicate whether youand others may be feeling disrespected. Once that issue is identified, a wholehost of creative possibilities become available for authentically addressing thereal cause. Once the real issue – evoked feelings of disrespect – is resolved,coming to agreement and resolving conflicts involving secondary concernsbecomes more workable.12
  13. 13. 5. Listen for mutual purpose The second cause of most conflicts is a lack or loss of mutualpurpose. Until mutual purposes can be identified or reaffirmed, veryfew conflicts will ever be readily resolved. Even the most bitter of enemies, by simple virtue of theircommon humanity, have mutual purposes in common, i.e. survivalneeds, self-esteem needs and the need for respect. What “enemies”are often in conflict over, especially in business and personalrelationships, are the best ways to get such needs met. However, ifrespect can be developed between people working at odds, then afoundation will exist for exploring and/or re-establishing mutualpurpose. Differences may still exist, but the possibility for coming toagreement is significantly enhanced if mutual respect and commonpurpose are identified and set solidly in place. Listening for mutual purpose then, is done by first hearing allthe ways people are working at cross-purposes. A skilful listener thenlistens for the places where mutual purpose might be hiding in theconflict. This doesn’t mean that resolving conflict is easy and wontrequire hard work, but by focusing on mutual respect and mutualpurpose, a skilful listener will be addressing the things that canconstructively make conflict resolution a possibilityPractice: The next time you find yourself in a conflict with someone, look forcross purposes that exist. Then look for where a discussion of mutualpurpose might begin. 13
  14. 14. 6. Be slow to disagree, argue or criticize Many conversations are laced with criticism, argument anddisagreement. When we engage in these behaviours as a listener, wecant hear what the other person is trying to say. We are attempting toget our point across and are not open to hearing what is actuallybeing expressed. A skilful listener listens to others beliefs, points ofview and versions of truth. It may be hard to hear things we don’tlike (skill no. 35), things we want to change, but skilful listeningallows the speaker full rein to say whatever they need to say. Using other listening skills recommended in this book can helpput an end to argument, criticism and disagreement. It takesdiscernment and practise to be open to things that are difficult to hearor what we think needs to be corrected, but in the long run, thebottom-line truth that has room to emerge from another person isworth far more than “being right”, or criticize goes a long way toallow truth, understanding and compassion to organically unfold.Practise: Observe several different conversations over the next few days.Listen for how much argument, disagreement, or criticism passes forconversation. Pay particular attention to its effect on the speaker.14
  15. 15. 7. Pay attention to the need for conversation control How many times have you observed or taken part in aconversation where two or more people are talking at the same time?If such a situation goes on for any duration, each participant willkeep raising his or her voice, trying to out-decibel the other until itactually becomes quite comical. In such situations very little listening is occurring, and a powerstruggle is taking place, even though that might not be so obvious tothe participants. In fact, many exchanges that pass as dialogues arereally exercises in one-upmanship and competition for control of theconversation. The irony is, in many conversations it is the listenerwho holds the greatest power by virtue of what he or she chooses toignore or respond to. By electing to selectively attend to content andfocus on emotional tone or immediate context, a skilful listener canturn a conversation or conflict 180 degrees in a matter of moments. Many people are reluctant to give over control in a discussionfor fear that it is something given over forever or that it signifiesweakness. The biblical injunction to “seek first to understand, andthen to be understood” is good advice. It’s not only possible, butadvantageous to temporarily give the floor over to another. Once aperson has had the opportunity to express what they need to,frequently they have more energy available to pay attention to whatyou have to say. As it is written in an ancient book of wisdom: “Yieldand overcome.”Practise: Observe people in conversation over the course of several days.Who does most of the talking? Who interrupts? Can you see where thebalance of control lies? Are you aware of control issues in your ownconversations? With whom or over what? 15
  16. 16. 8. Cultivate “Beginner’s Ear” Beginner’s Ear is a way of paying attention to the presentmoment that is open and curious. It holds a sense of wonder anddelight and the possibility of discovery in the midst of focusing onincreasingly finer detail. To gain a sense of what Beginner’s Ear might be like, we canthink of how the sounds of the world affected us as a small child. Wecan recall what it was like on a warm summer night and we heardthe very first cricket chirp and then heard smaller details – therhythm, the silence between chirps, and the answering call of theother crickets. Other sounds of childhood might also help us recall the feeland flavour of Beginner’s Ear. Everything was new and thrillingbecause we were curious and paid close attention. It is paying closeattention to ever-finer detail that comprises the core of Beginner’sEar. Attention to discriminating detail is the remedy that literallyworks best to keep things from “going in one ear and out the other”.Practise: Hold a conversation with someone you regularly talk to. Listenwith a new sense of curiosity and wonder. What are some things you hearthat you may not have heard before?16
  17. 17. 9. Get comfortable with silence The plain and simple truth is that few of us are perfectlycomfortable with silence. We live and work with radios and TVsblaring. We use cell phones and carry on conversations in spaces thatused to be silent and sacred. The extinction of silence is taking placeall over the world, right before our very ears. Becoming comfortable with silence is a necessary and criticalaspect of skilful listening. It is in the silent space between two peoplein dialogue that deeper, more creative ideas begin to emerge. Insilence, something bordering on magic transpires: as a listener weoffer others a chance to discover what they think, how they feel, whatthey want. One way to become increasingly comfortable with silence is tospend increasing amounts of time with it. As we do, silence’srhythms and sensations will become intimately familiar to us. It is,after all, this spacious emptiness at the sub-atomic level that quantumphysics tell us mostly makes up who we are!Practise: Make it a point to be aware of how silence in a conversation feels toyou. Does it cause you anxiety? Do you automatically rush to fill the space?Be mindful of the quiet and see if you can allow silence to be a part of yourconversations, a time to sit and reflect on what the speaker has told you, atime to honour and hold what has been said. 17
  18. 18. 10. Managing emotional reactivity Nothing stops another person from saying what they reallywant to say faster than unbridled emotional reactivity such asspeaking in loud, angry tones, replying with sarcasm, personalattacks, or even fuming in stifled silence. Emotional reactivity notonly interferes with listening, it can seriously damage a relationship.It undermines trust and is disrespectful. Unchecked emotionalreactivity inhibits clear, creative thinking and limits uncoveringhidden potential present in almost all situations. Those who frequently communicate in this reactive fashion say,“That’s just the way I am. Don’t take it personally.” Such justificationdemonstrates little real understanding of reactivity’s powerfulnegative impact on the communication process. However, lack ofawareness doesn’t mean the negative impact is not happening justthe same. At the root of all reactivity is a behaviour pattern based uponold wounds from times when we’ve felt belittled, humiliated,misunderstood or disrespected. Making peace with and healing theseold wounds is work for a skilful listener. Some people will argue, “Idon’t have control over what I say. Things just pop out of mymouth.” The work of a skilful listener is learn how to act in responseto the thoughts the fuel emotional reactivity behind the words, andwork towards healing emotional wounds.Practise: Spend some time during the coming week noticing the power thatothers’ words have to move you reactively. Notice things that trigger you.What needs of yours might be going unfulfilled? Can you find a positiveway to get such needs met?18
  19. 19. 11. Avoid “should-ing” on people Sometimes we find ourselves offering other people unsolicitedadvice. As well meaning as we may be, unless it’s specifically askedfor, advice doesn’t work. It’s rarely heeded and seldom needed.Living inside each of us is a wealth of wisdom and experience that ismuch more reliable, insightful and trustworthy than advice offeredby someone else. Telling people what they “should” do, at best, runsinterference, blocking access to this internal wisdom. At worst,“shoulding” on people ends up being judgemental and disrespectful.It also leaves us saddled with the responsibility to fix others’problems. And while out solutions might work perfectly for us,rarely will they work that way for someone else. A more skilful listening response when we find ourselvestempted to tell people what they “should” do, is to reflect back andask Strategic Questions in an attempt to put people in touch withtheir own inner wise counsel (Skill No. 44). “What does your gut tellyou?” “If you are of two minds, what is each telling you?” “Whatoutcome would be optimal in this situation?” Continually invitingothers to look to themselves, to take initiative and set intentions, willgo a long way toward making everyone’s life easier. Practise: For the next one week, pay attention to the ways you are temptedto give advice to others. Practise skilful ways of returning the responsibilityfor solving problems back to them. 19
  20. 20. 12. Stop when your energy flags Like many human endeavours, listening skilfully takes workand expends energy. The amount of energy we can direct to it at anyone time can vary considerably. Available energy is variable andinfluenced by a whole host of factors, both known and unknown. Butone thing is clear: our available energy waxes and wanes through thecourse of a day. Interacting with people often saps our vitality, particularly with“energy vampires” – those people who have the mysterious capacityto drain off our energy and soak it up like a sponge. At times, withpeople like this and others, when our ability to listen is flagging, askilful listener takes responsibility and finds ways to convey respectand concern for another, while at the same time limiting or cuttingshort a meeting or conversation. Rather than trying to push throughwhen the tank is empty, we can recognise and confess that we don’thave sufficient energy to give others our fullest attention. The odds ofa satisfying interaction and outcome are much higher whensomeone’s batteries are fully charged.Practise: Notice in conversations when your energy flags and you begin totune out the speaker. Experiment with speaking the truth about yourinability to listen fully on an “empty tank”. Consider putting off importantconversations to a later time when you are more alert and energised.20
  21. 21. 13. Establish support for speaking truth to power It is often difficult to speak truthfully to people who holdpower over us. Skilful listeners know this and take it to heart whenlistening to subordinates. Whether it is a child, employee, or astudent, skilful listeners encourage those they hold power over to feelempowered to say what’s true with no fear of reprisal. A skilfullistener can be present with compassion, willing to hear another’struth and hold it gently, no matter how distressing the truth may be.The Lakota warrior and wise man, Crazy Horse, warned “Powermust listen with honest ears to the whispers of the powerless.” Tobecome known for being someone to whom people can speak thetruth, you must be kind. You must know that your power makes itdifficult for others to speak openly and truthfully unless youdeliberately do things to make it happen. One obvious guideline for those of us holding the responsibilityof power is to refrain at all times from ridiculing, blaming, shamingor condemning. By doing so we establish ourselves as someone whowelcomes the truth no matter how disturbing or how poorlyexpressed it might be. Thus, we build a flawless reputation forwelcoming and cherishing truth tellers.Practise: Notice over the next week, any time you have time you have theimpulse to tell a lie, either by commission or by omission. What is the fearthat underlies it? What might work to permit you to tell the truth to theperson? Also, notice how those in subordinate positions speak to you. Canyou tell when someone might be telling you what he or she thinks you wantto hear, rather than the whole truth and nothing but the truth? 21
  22. 22. Section One Reflection QuestionsOf these first 13 skills, which stand out the most as I practise tobecome a skilful listener?What have I heard that I haven’t been able to hear before I beganpractising these skills?I am working to create an atmosphere of trust by...Notes to myself...22
  23. 23. “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that something deepinside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to ourtouch.” – e.e. cummings 23
  24. 24. “Listen and understand me” When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you havenot done what I have asked. When I ask you to listen and you starttelling me why I shouldn’t feel the way I do, you are invalidating myfeelings. When I ask you to listen and you start trying to solve myproblems, I feel underestimated and disempowered. When I ask youto listen and you start telling me what I need to do I feel offended,pressured and controlled. When I ask you to listen, it does not mean Iam helpless. I may be faltering, depressed or discouraged, but I amnot helpless. When I ask you to listen and you do things which I canand need to do for myself, you hurt my self-esteem. But when youaccept the way I feel, then I don’t need to spend time and energytrying to defend myself or to convince you, and I can focus onfiguring out why I feel the way I feel and what to do about it. Andwhen I do that, I don’t need advice, just support, trust andencouragement. Please remember that what you think are irrationalfeelings always make sense if you take the time to listen andunderstand me. - An adolescent’s plea to adults24
  25. 25. 14. Regularly practise kenosis Listening is more than simply taking in the words anotherperson says. It often includes a requirement for us to empty ourhearts and minds of personal agendas in order to connect directlywith another. There’s a wonderful Greek word that describes thisprocess: kenosis. Kenosis is derived from kengo, which has several relatedmeanings. The primary meaning for skilled listening is “to emptyoneself.” It is an empty, open state that allows for high levels oflistening. M. Scott Peck, noted author of The Road Less Travelled says,“...the setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference anddesires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world fromthe inside, steps inside his or her shoes. This unification of speakerand listener is actually an extension and enlargement of ourselves,and new knowledge is always gained from this. Moreover, since truelistening involves a setting aside of self, it is also temporarilyinvolves a total acceptance of the other. Sensing this acceptance, thespeaker will feel less and less vulnerable, and more and moreinclined to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to thelistener. As this happens, speaker and listener begin to appreciateeach other more and more, and the dance of love is begun again.”This is a wonderful example of kenosis in action.Practise: Listen to another without any particular agenda. Free yourselffrom your own world and focus on the speaker. Put aside your physical,mental or emotional aches and pains and focus solely on the other person.Empty yourself of all thoughts of you and what you think reality and truthare. 25
  26. 26. 15. Listen for feelings When listening to a speaker’s verbal message, the emotion thatunderlies the message will be most significant. The emotion is whatwe hear deeply and respond to most strongly, often without realisingit. Feelings direct us, as speakers and listeners, to deeper truths. Before we can recognise and authentically respond to another’sfeelings, however, we are well served to learn to recognise andbecome comfortable with our own. For some people, this work is likeattempting to learn a foreign language, and a difficult one at that. When we are comfortable knowing that we feel, we will be ableto listen better for the emotional content of what a person is saying.When we are listening for feelings, we begin to hear things not justwith our ears, but with our hearts as well. It is what the speaker feelsthat they want to us know and understand, even if they can’tverbalise it in words.Practise: How do you know what you feel when you feel it? Spend some timeidentifying one of five major feelings : mad, sad, glad, excited or scared.Notice the place in your body that you predominately experience eachfeeling. This is a powerful form of self-listening. Then listen for anotherperson’s emotional content. Close your eyes and open your heart to what isreally being presented.26
  27. 27. 16. Listen as a caregiver Listening and understanding is a form of care-giving. Everyform of care-giving is a treasury of loving. Whether the care-givingoccurs in the form of attending to babies and young children, thelonely, the elderly, the frail and the infirm, the disturbed, the dying,or simply caring for the person who next walks in through the frontdoor, each act of caring is an act of loving. We know that caring doesmuch to sustain everyday life, even if such acts are not honoured oracknowledged. They hold the key to understanding how to livetogether well. The gift of our complete and focussed attention is one of thekindest gifts we can give one another. It confers on both giver andreceiver a sense of meaning and value. We find that when we focusour attention on another, they become more real for us, therelationship becomes more meaningful, and we become naturallymore compassionate. The solidity of our sense of “I”, obscuring ourheart of compassion, begins to dissolve and the “other” becomes ourcentral focus. If we take a moment to think about it, among the more preciousmoments in our life are those times when we have felt most deeplyunderstood by another human being. With attention, we feel heard,seen and understood. We are nurtured in the gift of another’sattention. Giving the gift of our attention gives one the greatest giftsof all – the gift of skilled listening.Practise: The next time you are in dialogue with someone, focus on the otherperson with all your senses. How does the gift of your attention seem toaffect the other person? 27
  28. 28. 17. Practise the Golden Rule of Listening The Golden Rule –“Do unto others as you would have them dounto you” – is a wonderful guide for living one’s life. Listening toothers as you want them to listen to you is as well. There are 51 otherskills in this book, and its challenging to remember them all of them.If you are stumped for a skill to use in a particular situation, use the“Golden Rule of Listening” as your default practise. Keep theintention of the golden rule in your heart as you practise other skillsas well. Listen as you would want to be heard. Most people want thelistener to hear and understand what they are saying; they want theirthoughts and feelings to be known. They want to be able to speakwhat is true for them and they want that truth to be honoured, evenif the listener disagrees with their version of the truth. If we can listento others by the Golden Rule of Listening, we will be able to hear andconnect deeply with others. We will be less inclined to argue, criticizeor disagree as we hold the Golden Rule as our guide.Practise: This week listen using the Golden Rule of Listening, we will beable to hear and connect deeply with others. Do you notice any changes inyour listening skills? Do you hear more things or hear them differently thanyou did before?28
  29. 29. 18. Avoid letting your story take over their story Often, when we listen to people, what they say strikes aresponsive chord in us. We may have had similar thoughts orexperiences. In an attempt to empathise and connect with the person,we tell our own related stories. Resist this impulse. It doesn’t work. When we tell our own story, we shift the focus away from thespeaker, perhaps for extended periods. Inevitably, this leaves thespeaker feeling cut off, frustrated and disrespected. When thishappens, more often than not, the speaker will stop talking and feelresentful or disrespected. Perhaps the story that you have interrupted is only thebeginning of something the speaker is trying to explore and find theirway more deeply into, or perhaps it is something they simply need toget off their chest. To short-circuit this process with your own story isin a subtle way saying that what you have to say is more importantthan what they have to say. We all know how badly that feels.Practise: Next time you find yourself telling your story in response tosomeone else’s, stop and apologise for interrupting. Ask the speaker to pleasecontinue. To help get the speaker back on track, ask a new question abouttheir story and begin listening. 29
  30. 30. 19. Check for meaning Author and researcher, Larry Barker advised skilful listeners toremember “words have no meaning – people have meaning.”Assigning meaning to words is an internal process; meaning comesfrom inside us. Although our experiences, knowledge and attitudesmay differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages, whilesimultaneously operating under the illusion that a commonunderstanding has been achieved. It is very difficult not to overlay or add on to what we hearbased on our experiences and perceptions. We take the words aperson says, filter them through our screens of meaning and thendraw conclusions or construct interpretations that don’t accuratelyreflect what the speaker intends. Great misunderstandings frequentlyresult. One way to counter this process is do regular accuracy checksby repeating or paraphrasing what we think we hear and themeaning we make to response to whomever we are listening. Skilledlisteners do their best to reflect back a speaker’s truth and deeperreality, and not a version of their own. As we experiment with this practise, we can be wrong far moreoften than right. It takes time to get it right. This is fine so long, as weremember that what we’re trying to do discern is truth and accuracy,and this messy, often cumbersome process is one way to go about it.Practise: In a conversation with someone you trust, explain that you want topractise something “silly” to help you with your listening skills. Ask forpermission to reflect back the meaning of what you have heard. Ask forfeedback. Each time you do this successfully, you hone a great listening skill.You actually learn how to “get” what the other person deeply wants you toknow.30
  31. 31. 20. Listen for content not delivery For a variety of reasons, some of us have a hard time sayingwhat we really want. We may have a speech impediment or a veryslow or very fast way of processing information. Listening tosomeone who stutters, for example, can be quite challenging. It’sdifficult not to offer the word the stutterer is stuck on to ease our ownanxiety. Other people may talk fast, or slow, or with a heavy accent, orlace their speech with epithets or euphemisms. There are countlessways a speaker can deliver a message that distracts us. Being mindfulthat the truth lies in the content of the message no matter how it isdelivered, helps our focus on where it needs to be. We can keep ourmind on what is said, not how it is said. When we negatively judgesomeone or his or her message based on their delivery, we lost thecontent. Moreover, we lose the chance to open our hearts and connectto another. Listen to content, not delivery, and you will hear far, farmore!Practise: Identify someone whose style of speech and delivery is difficult foryou. Can you remain calm and alert as you particular attention to thecontent of the message? What helps that practise? What hinders it? 31
  32. 32. 21. Be genuinely curious Some people are born with a natural inclination to be curious.They ask a lot of questions and explore new things with gusto. Thesepeople are more prone to be curious about other people and naturallywant to listen and know more about another. Rob Brown, aCalifornia public relations executive, has a way of making everyonehe talks to feel extremely important. He asks question after question,sincerely wanting to know: “And then what happened?” or “Andhow did you feel?” His favourite response to a speaker is, “Tell memore.” For those of us not born with a strong inclination tocuriousness, we can develop it by remembering what it was likewhen we were a young child and everything was new andfascinating. When we try on the eyes and ears of a child to encounterour world and the people in it, we become more curious about whothey are and what they might want us to know. Curiosity makes us sincerely interested in the person we arelistening to. When we are curious, we ask more open-endedquestions and are eager for the answers. Our curiosity conveys to aspeaker that we care for and appreciate them. Curiosity fuels a desireto lead the speaker deeper and deeper into their truth and invitesthem to share it with us.Practise: Put on “the eyes and ears of a child” the next time you speak tosomeone. What things do you become curious about? What questions canyou ask to discover more about that person?32
  33. 33. 22. Listen for underlying needs In one way or another, every human communication is anexpression of a need. It may take the direct form of a straightforwardrequest: “Would you present the new marketing campaign to theV.P?” “Do you like my outfit?” or “May I have a cookie?” Communication can also indirectly express needs that lie belowthe surface: “Would you present the new marketing campaign to theV.P” may mean, “I am too scared to do it.” “Do you like my newoutfit?” may mean “Do you think I’m looking fat?” Or “May I have acookie?” may mean “Do you love me?” A skilled listener listens forthe underlying needs of the speaker. To get to underlying needs, wecan ask a simple question – “Why do you ask?” or “What do youneed exactly?” Listening for needs works to identify areas of common interestaround which exciting, positive, creative collaborations can be built.For example, if we listen to the colleague who is afraid of presentingthe marketing campaign to the V.P, we open up a host ofpossibilities. But it all starts with the realization that virtually allcommunication is intended to express any variety of needs. Theskilful listener is constantly listening for what those needs may be.Ralph Nichols summed it up best when he said, “The most basic ofall human needs is the need to understand and to be understood. Thebest way to understand people is to listen to them.”Practise: Things that our friends, family and colleagues need in anycommunication often are hidden, even from them. Over the next few days,spend some time asking people this simple question: “What is it you need?” 33
  34. 34. 23. Identify defensiveness; practise non-defensiveness When a person we are listening to feels under attack, eitherrightfully or wrongfully, they frequently defend themselves witheither silence or violence. When they react with silence, the conversation stops cold.When they react with violence, either by retaliatory verbal attacks oroutright physical assault, this can escalate to further violence. Violence can take more subtle forms as well. Sarcasm or snideremarks like, “Who died and made you king?” or “Why don’t youshow us the right way to do it then, Mr. Big Shot?” also have theseeds of violence in them. Any remark that has the effect ofdiminishing, discounting, belittling, or marginalizing someone hasviolence at its core. If we recognise that a defensive response is rooted in oldwound and reactivated by either our behaviour or our verbalresponses, it becomes easier to hear what truths may be laying underthe defensiveness. Then we can practise our own ways of being non-defensive. Skilful listeners do not defend against the things that havecaused the speaker to react with silence or violence, but rather theyhelp the speaker search for what may be causing them to feelattacked. If we believe that skilful listening can truly heal, skilfullisteners are open to trying to find the source of pain and invitespeakers to talk about it further. Defensiveness begets more conflict.Skilful listeners listen for defensiveness and all the reasons for it,offer apologies and amends when necessary.Practise: Pay attention to the need of others to defend themselves in aconversation. What might you have said or done that triggered the reaction?Do you easily recognise when someone feels the need to defend?34
  35. 35. 24. Listen for differences When we listen to others, often what we listen for are the thingswe understand or things we agree with. We find comfort indiscovering the ways that others are like us. People who are clearlydifferent from us make us uncomfortable. In addition, those whomwe thought were very much like us, who turn out to be very differentfrom us, make us uncomfortable. We don’t like to hear aboutdifferences. A skilful listener deliberately seeks out and pays attention tothe ways others are different from us. We begin to and appreciate theway human beings have been shaped, moulded, and often distortedby culture, schooling, family of origin, genetic makeup, and anynumber of other unknown factors. Like snowflakes, no two peopleout of billions and billions are exactly alike. After we’ve learned to listen for differences and develop anappreciation for them, we can cherish and celebrate out specialuniqueness. From this perspective we can turn ourselves intopersonal and professional planetary citizens, perfectly at home in allour radiant diversity at any place on the planet.Practise: Spend time paying close attention to things people say thatsurprise you or that you don’t understand or that you disagree with.Consider what you expected them to say. What assumptions underlie yourexpectations? Can you appreciate how our differences hold the potential tomake the world an exciting and interesting place? 35
  36. 36. 25. Relax and laugh Learning something new takes time and effort. It’s easy to gettoo caught up in the learning. When that happens, we need to lift ourheads up, look around, relax and pay attention to other things in ourlives. There is much to laugh about in learning to skilfully listen.Miscommunication is the norm. Sometimes, it’s a wonder we’re ableto understand one another at all, especially when we consider that ofthe 800 English words that people use on a daily basis, each has anaverage of 17 different meanings! (Other languages the world over,have similar complexities). Add to that the fact that only 35% of agiven message’s meaning is derived from the actual words we use.These statistics border on the ridiculous, yet it’s the reality most of uslive with. Learning to be a skilful listener opens the doors to deepunderstanding and to love, not only for others, but also for ourselves.However, as with any new skill we take on, we must keep a properperspective. No matter how hard we try, there will be times whenmiscommunication happens. We can laugh about it and takewhatever necessary steps will lead to greater clarity. The veryintention of wanting to be a better listener speaks volumes and isoften more important than getting it “perfect”.Practise: Take some time off from practising to be a skilful listener and giveyourself permission to be “the worst listener in the world!” Relax...enjoy theprocess of learning.36
  37. 37. 26. Develop “second attention at the edge” Growth and learning takes place in very much the same waythat it does in grass and flowers and trees – right at the edges wherethe old makes room for the new. In flowers, we observe the tinyopenings of buds in springtime displaying the first flash of colour. Intree leaves and grasses, we can easily see the darker green as it standsin sharp contrast to the new brighter green. Similarly, we can notice such growing hints and contrastbetween the old and the emerging new in people. We do that bypaying close or “second attention” to those edges where old ways ofbeing and acting are getting ready to fall away, as new areas ofexpertise and responsibility prepare to burst into bloom. More often than not, the transitions that growth and changerequire of us come with fear and anxiety attached. If we pay respect –look once again, or pay “second attention” – any time we hear hintsof fear or anxiety coming from those around us, we might be curiousabout the things connected to such fearful concerns. By thinkingdeeply about creative possibilities in connection with our own andother’s growing edges, we can be of enormous help to one another.Practise: Look around you and listen for changes that might be on the vergeof taking place. In small children, it can be readily apparent as newbehaviours appear virtually overnight. What are you hearing that tells yousomeone may be on the cusp of change and be feeling anxious? How mightyou best hold sacred the personal truths they might be willing to share withyou? 37
  38. 38. Section Two Reflection QuestionsWhat changes have I noticed in my relationship since I’ve begunpractising these listening skills?What conflicts have I been able to resolve since I’ve been practisingthese skills?What things am I newly curious about or interested in about otherpeople?Notes to myself...38
  39. 39. “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force...When we arelistened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin togrow within us and come to life.” – Brenda Ueland 39
  40. 40. “What is it you’re not saying?” I had a fascinating experience with a highly balanced masculineand feminine culture two years ago in New Zealand while travellingwith a group of women healers. We had been invited to visit asacred, reservation-like community of the Maori Polynesian culture. At a gathering of hundreds of men, women and children, Iasked the community’s medical doctor just what medicine he usedfor healing many of the illnesses on the island and his reply changedmy thinking. He said that hey used no medicine whatsoever. None. If a person was sick in any way, from a cold to cancer, theywould call the entire community and all gathered round, includingthe children. They’d position the ill person in the center and thecommunity would sit. This physician would ask the person onequestion and one question only: “What is it you are not saying?”They would all sit and wait for days until this person revealed all ofwhat he or she was keeping to himself or herself. The doctor reporteda ninety-nine percent healing rate. They were using their own innatewisdom, their own inner-guidance and the power of full self-expression, that is, emotional truth, intellectual truth and itsinterconnectedness. - Christine Hibbard40
  41. 41. 27. Learn to let go In many of the previous practises, we have asked you to openand listen without judging, and to tolerate and accept other people asyou find them. We know those are tall orders. Each of us has an egoand a view of the world that makes sense to us. To let go of what wethink the world and all the other people in it should be like ischallenging. How do we let go? We start by realising the world is made up of billions of peoplewho come from different cultures, who were raised with differentparenting styles, and who experienced different early life events thathave shaped them into who they are today. In order to let go of ourexpectations and “shoulds”, we must hold fast to the idea ofdiversity. The world does not look any one way. There are no“shoulds.” There is only the way things are, what is. When we let goof thinking the world and its inhabitants should be a certain way.When we let go of thinking the world and its inhabitants should be acertain way, we let go of the need for control. We open ourselves andour hearts to what exists without the need to force others to buy intoour worldview. In a sociological study that interviewed a significant number ofpeople at the end of life, three things were mentioned over and overconcerning what made for a rich, complete life: living fully, lovingwell, and... learning to let go.Practise: List a dozen ways that you think your life should be different thanit is. Next to that list write down how it actually is. Can you love andappreciate and forgive how it actually is, and let go and listen in ways thatwill allow things to change in directions you’d like them to, without the needfor control? 41
  42. 42. 28. Listen between the words Skilled listeners pay great attention to what’s not being said aswell as to what is. They recognise that in many conversations, thespeaker is deciding how safe they feel and consequently, what theycan reveal. This process goes on with friends and adversaries alike.Research has demonstrated that the actual words we use convey lessthan ten percent of the total information that we receive fromanother. The rest is taken from tone, context, body language, andwhat is not said. Learning to listen for what isn’t being said isn’t difficult. Bodylanguage, stumbling for words and facial expressions are three thingsa skilled listener can watch and listen for. As Malcolm Gladwellpointed out in his New Yorker article, “The Naked Face,” what oftenisn’t being said is readily recognisable to an astute observer simplyby looking directly at a speaker’s face. If you suspect something is not being said, ask what will makeit safe for someone to say what they really want to. Then do what isnecessary to create that safe place for them to speak. Author and poet, Charles C. Finn said, “I tell you everythingthat is really nothing, and nothing of what is everything. Do not befooled by what I’m saying. Please listen carefully and try to hearwhat I am not saying.” Remember, being trustworthy, as we noted before, goes a longway in helping others feel safe enough to speak truthfully. Andpeople want to hear what it is they are not saying.Practise: Over the next few days, observe conversations you have withfriends and acquaintances. Ask if there is something that they really want tosay, but feel they cant. Ask you can do to make it safe, so they can tell youwhat it is they are not saying.42
  43. 43. 29. Champion the timid voice All of us are wiser than any one of us. When two or morepeople get together, there are gems of wisdom waiting to bediscovered. The timid voice doesn’t offer up these gems for a varietyof reasons. Some may feel it is unsafe to speak. Others might not beclear about what they want to say. Similar to making it safe for small children to speak freely-great wisdom out of the mouths of babes – when a skilled listenerchampions the timid voice they care to convey ongoing respect andprovide protection from judgements, criticisms, and ridicule in anyform. And not just for the timid voices, but for everyone present allthe time. It is from observing such safe treatment that timid voiceswill cautiously begin speaking up. Championing the timid voice is much like creating a safeharbour where people can speak truth to power (Skill no. 13). Youmay not be in a position of power over the timid voice, but it is stilldifficult for such shy people to speak up. When intimidating or overwhelming elements in any situationare deliberately removed, respect for those less forceful is present andwe solicit the timid voice. More often than not, the timid voice willspring to life and introduce a wealth of experience and insight to theconversation. A skilful listener actively solicits ideas and opinionsfrom those with timid voices. Those ideas and opinions often turn outto be quite surprising to speaker and listener alike!Practise: Identify a friend or acquaintance who is normally quite andreserved in group settings. Next time you’re together in a group, see whatcreative possibilities you can come up with to encourage that person to bemore self-expressive. 43
  44. 44. 30. Listen for inconsistencies How many times have you had the experience of hearingsomeone speak and their words simply do not ring true?Inconsistencies are mismatches and they frequently occur betweenwhat a person says – the content of their communication – and thefeeling tone behind the words. Daily communication often containsincongruities. “No problem!” and “I’m so sorry” can often mean theexact opposite if someone is speaking insincerely. In addition to voice tone, body language can also contradictspoken words. A person proclaiming themselves to be happy whilesitting slumped with a frown on their face sends a mixed message.Likewise, a person who laughs nervously as a defence in emotionallyloaded circumstance is demonstrating incongruous or inconsistentcommunication. A skilful listener learns to recognise inconsistencies. They listenfor the feeling that is expressed even when the words don’t match thecommunication. The feelings communicated through the mixedmessage will be the more accurate and truthful dimension of thecommunication. When two feelings seem to be at odds, whateverappears to be appropriate to the situation will be the one to pay closeattention to. The trick in addressing inconsistencies, as in much thatconstitutes skilful listening, is to respond in compassionate ways thatdo not reinforce or increase defensiveness.Practise: Next time you’re at a party, spend time listening and watching formismatches between what a person is saying and their facial expressions andbody postures. Which do you think is the more authentic communication?44
  45. 45. 31. Listen with a soft belly When we listen to others whose viewpoints differ from ours, orto people who say things we feel we must defend against, we oftentense up and feel irritated or frustrated. Repeated occurrences of thistype of stress are unhealthy. How then, can we listen to what isdifficult to hear, without too much wear and tear on us? Skilful listeners listen with a “soft belly”. Dr. Fred Luskin,author of Forgive for Good, teaches the “positive emotion refocusingtechnique” as a way to calm down the physical response to anger andfrustration. When you feel yourself getting upset in a conversation,breath in a few deep, slow breaths all the way down into your bellyenough to push it out. Then relax your belly and let it go completelysoft. Slowly exhale. After a few deep breaths, bring the image ofsomeone you love or a scene from nature that makes you feelpeaceful into your mind’s eye. Imagine this scene or person centeredin your heart area. Keep breathing slow, deep breaths and ask thepeaceful part of you that holds the image, what you can do to resolvethe problem at hand. When we allow our bodies to quiet down during aconversation that disturbs us, we are open to solutions. We don’tcreate an “enemy image” of the speaker, or harbour deep-seatedgrudges against another.Practise: Think of something that triggers a negative emotional reaction inyou. Breathe in slowly into your belly. Now think of something or someoneyou love. Hold that image in the area of your heart. Continue to breatheslowly and deeply. Do these for a few breaths then return to the thought orimage that you originally found upsetting. Has the feeling been reduced orsoftened? 45
  46. 46. 32. Return to the needs of the present moment Much of everyday life isn’t live in the present moment. Verylittle of what we talk about every day deals with in-the-momentcurrent events, needs or wants. One of the great gifts a skilful listenerbrings to the table is a reminder that our lives unfold and take placein the here and the now. One way a skilful listener can help a speakerreclaim the present moment is to inquire about thoughts and feelingsas they are occurring. “What does that feel like?” “What do you wantright now?” “Is there something you need now that I can help with?”These and other responses lead the focus back to the presentmoment. Such responses help us practise mindfulness. The benefit of a present-moment focus is the central theme inEckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. In the present moment iswhere everything that we want and need is rooted, and helping tofacilitate that awareness and recognition is of inestimable value.Practise: Pay close attention to how things feel to you in this moment – inyour body and in your mind. Are you thirsty? Hungry? Happy? Sad? Feela need to get us and move? See how many times in a day you can take apresent-moment “break!” Paying attention to such things is actually skilfullistening.46
  47. 47. 33. Develop methods for skilful self-listening Skilled listeners are able to listen deeply to themselves. Theyask: “What’s true for me? What do I want? What can I do to obtainwhat I want?” A well-known adage instructs, “If you bring forth what isinside you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is insideyou, it will destroy you.” Listening is the primary way that wediscover the riches that live deep within ourselves. Another simple and direct way to listen to oneself is to begin aprocess of discerning our ordo amorum (the priority of things welove) for oneself. Who am I? What do I love? What do I love most? Two all-encompassing self-questions that researchers havefound to be enormously powerful when asked over and over againare the very ones at the top of this page: “What’s true for me?” and“What do I want?” Asking these two questions repeatedly will notonly help to reinvigorate and re-inspire efforts that may have beentemporarily halted due to any number of life’s pressing concerns.Practise: Spend a month writing a double-entry journal(http://duke.usask.ca/~dul381/common/dej.html) First, ask and writeanswers to the two questions above: What’s true for me? What do I want?Then come back at the end of the month and write commentary on theentries that you have made the previous month. What common themesemerge? Can you see how this might lead to profound self-listening? 47
  48. 48. 34. Cultivate patience Skilful listeners are patient. Those who have accomplishedsome measure of proficiency in being patient, share anunderstanding that hearing someone out – helping them get to theheart of the matter – takes time. And it’s that time they’re willing tooffer. Skilful listeners posses a willingness to temporarily suspendwhatever needs for self-expression they may have, while they focuson others without any great need for them to be succinct, speedy orclear in what they have to say. They are not disturbed when aspeaker, who is working through a significant issue, rambles orrepeats the same story over and over again in different ways. Skilfulpatient listeners carry Beginner’s Ear (Skill no. 8) with them, lettingthem hear the same story as if hearing it for the first time. How exactly does someone go about cultivating patience? Withpractise and a clear understanding of the benefits that patience offersto oneself and others. And by knowing and understanding thatothers need to tell their stories to someone who cares, and that thereis a freeing, healing value inherent in such telling.Practise: Experiment with three things that might work to help you be morepatient with yourself and those around you. Whatever works for you tobecome more patient is worth discovering and practising. It is a sign thatyou have temporarily put aside your own ego needs in service to another.Patience is love in action.48
  49. 49. 35. Become someone who can hear hard truths There are many direct ways we let others know we don’t wantto hear hard truths that will upset us. We might say, “I don’t want tohear that,” “Let’s not go there,” or “I don’t want to talk aboutproblems, only solutions.” We also have indirect ways we let people know what not to tellus. A common way is to express anger or frustration in response tothings people say that we don’t like. These are often people we havethe closest relationship with – co-workers, intimates, children,parents etc. Listening to hard truths stretches us to open our hearts andminds to topics that are emotionally charged for us. They challengeus to be slow to anger, disagree or criticize (Skill no. 6). But beingslow with those negative responses is exactly what we must do if wewant someone to trust us enough to share even their easy truths withus. What must we do if we truly want to become someone towhom hard truths can be readily told? We must find authentic waysto value, praise and honour such truth-tellers. We must developincreasing capacity to recognise the gifts such messengers bring us,even if their message might be initially painful and threatening.James Bishop understood both the power and the difficulty in beingable to bear hard truths: “The truth which makes us free is for themost part, the truth which we prefer not to hear.”Practise: Pay attention when someone close to you stops short of tellingsomething difficult. Notice what you may be doing to close down theconversation. What might you do to make it safe to reopen again? 49
  50. 50. 36. Be mindful of age, race and bias When we listen to someone, we subconsciously filter what theyare saying through biases of age, race and gender. If you are awoman, it may be easier to hear what another woman has to say. Ifyou are a person of colour, it may be easier to hear another person ofcolour. We generally listen better to people who are close to us in age,race and gender. But skilful listeners are mindful of such biases. They bring theirunconscious biases into the light of day and examine exactly howthey listen to both genders, various age groups and different races,and they correct any deficits in their listening accordingly. All humanbeings deserve our skilful listening. We listen better when we listento the heart of the person speaking, as opposed to their age, race orgender.Practise: This week spend time noticing if you change your listening habitsand skills when you listen to men and women. What things change whenyou listen to people of different races, ages and genders? What three thingsdo you need to do in order to be more mindful of age, race and gender?50
  51. 51. 37. Break the “I” habit Many years ago, before privacy laws were enacted, the NewYork Telephone Company listened in on phone conversations as apart of a research project to discover the most frequently used wordsin conversations. The number one word was “I”. Most of us don’t realise how much of our daily talk is aboutourselves. It’s a habit we began as children – one we’ve never foundthe need to change. Here are a few good reasons to break the habit:the word “I“ stifles true dialogue as well as the opportunity to learnanything new about the person you are in a conversation with, or asubject that they may know something about that you don’t. “I”stifles creative partnerships, teamwork and discovering new ways tofulfil others’ needs. When we ask more questions about others, and discuss withthem the content of their conversation using the word “you” (as longas we are not bossing or blaming), a new world opens up. Others willbe attracted to us and we will win a new level of respect. Skilledlisteners are aware of the benefits of using the word “you” moreoften than “I”.Practise: For the next seven days, refrain from beginning a sentence with“I”. Be aware of how many times you refer to yourself in a conversation. Asyou use the word “I” less and less, notice how people respond to you. 51
  52. 52. 38. Ask specific, clarifying questions We often assume we understand what a person means by thewords they use and their generally agreed upon meaning. However,consider this: as mentioned earlier, each of the 800 words that weregularly and repeatedly use in everyday English has an average of17 different definitions! Other languages have similar limitations. Is itany wonder that we are so frequently surprised to discover that whatwe thought someone meant, after close questioning, we then discoverthey meant something else entirely? A skilful listener knows that meaning is tricky and subjective.When we engage in dialogue, we frequently speak thoughts off thetop of our heads. First thoughts work like first drafts in writing – theyrequire a good editor/listener to clarify meaning and intent. Like awriter attempting to commit a vision to the page, a speaker may havetrouble finding and using words to express all that he or she may bethinking and feeling. Asking specific, clarifying questions canfrequently help bring a speaker’s subject into clear focus. How do we know when something needs clarification? Oneway is to tune our ears for certain words that signal uncleargeneralizations. Words like “they”, “everyone”, “always”, “never”,or “nobody” are a few examples. When asked to clarify or elaborate,such generalizations often end up referring to specific people, places,times and things.Practise: Listen for generalizations and globalizations in your next severalconversations. They often show up in the words described above. See if youcan get the speaker to become more specific in their speech.52
  53. 53. 39. Say what’s useful; say what’s true Some people cant wait to “get things off their chest” or “givesomeone a piece of their mind” when they are presumably listening.They take great pride in “not pulling any punches” and in ‘telling itlike it is.” However, this style of communication has a certain kind ofegocentric aggressiveness in it. Skilful listeners do not respond in thisway. Skilful listeners respond with what they know to be factual,true, beneficial and agreeable to others. Skilful listeners also developa sense of timeliness – recognising the “right” moment for sayingthem. In other words, out of a sense of genuine affection and care forothers, a thoughtful and skilful listener realises that an importantelement of truth telling involves understanding exactly what theother person is able and ready to hear. In addition to what is truthful,they consider what will be most useful to another. The distinctionbetween the skilful style and egocentric style is simple and easy todistinguish: one is thoughtful and other-centred, and the other isthoughtless and self-centered, caring little about the real needs andwishes of another. How do we best determine when someone might be ready,willing and able to hear? If someone is feeling defensive and hurt,they are unlikely to be able to usefully receive the “truth telling”. Oneexcellent way to find out what a person is ready to hear and finduseful is simply...to ask them!Practise: Think of someone that you’d like to “give a piece of your mind” to.What is your motivation for such action? If you could transform yourintention or motivation, how might you speak so that what you have to saycould be heard and put to good use? 53
  54. 54. Section Three Reflection QuestionsWhat does it feel like when I listen deeply to someone?What have I heard recently that I may have found disturbing? Howdid I respond?What have I noticed about my capacity to pay ever closer attention?Notes to myself...54
  55. 55. “All things, animate and inanimate, have within them, a spiritdimension. They communicate in that dimension to those who canlisten.” – Jerome Bernstein 55
  56. 56. “Sit down here and tell me about it.”The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on adrowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty – a fewhousewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. Igazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quietwas shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses.The man staggered into our car. He wore labourer’s clothing, and hewas big, drunk and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holdinga baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple.It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other endof the car. The labourer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the oldwoman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged thedrunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the centre of the car and triedto wrench it out of the stanchion. I could see that one of his handswas cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozenwith fear. I stood up.I was young then, some twenty years ago, and in pretty good shape.I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearlyeveryday for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. Ithought I was tough. The trouble was, my martial skill was untestedin actual combat. As students of aikido, we are not allowed to fight.“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art ofreconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken hisconnection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you arealready defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to startit.”I listened to his words. I tried hard. I even went so far as to cross thestreet to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged aroundthe train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough andholy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate56
  57. 57. opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying theguilty.“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet. “People are in danger.If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.”Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognised a chance to focus his rage.“Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanesemanners!”I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a lookof disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but hehad to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lipsand blew him an insolent kiss.“All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson in Japanesemanners.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted“Hey!” It was ear-splitting. I remember the strangely joyous, liltingquality of it – as though you and a friend had been searchingdiligently for something and he had suddenly stumbles upon it.“Hey!”I wheeled to my left; the drunk man to his right. We both stareddown at this little Japanese man. He must have been well into hisseventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in hiskimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at thelabourer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret toshare.“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to thedrunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feetbelligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above theclacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk nowhad his back to me. If his elbow moved as much as a millimetre, I’ddrop him in his socks. 57
  58. 58. The old man continued to beam at the labourer. “What’cha beendrinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.“I been drinking sake,” the labourer bellowed back, “and it’s none ofyour business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful!You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife – she’s 76, youknow – we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into thegarden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun godown, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. Mygreat-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether itwill recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree hasdone better that I expected, though, especially when you consider thepoor quality of the soil. It’s gratifying to watch when we take oursake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” Helooked up at the labourer, eyes twinkling.As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’sface began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “Ilove persimmons, too...” His voice trailed off.“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have awonderful wife.”“No,” replied the labourer. “My wife dies.” Very gently, swayingwith the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got nowife. I don’t got no home. I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed ofmyself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippledthrough his body.Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well scrubbed youthfulinnocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, Isuddenly felt dirtier than he was.Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard theold man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “That is a difficultpredicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”58
  59. 59. I turned my head for one last look. The labourer was sprawled on theseat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly strokingthe filthy, matted hair. As the train pulled away, I sat down on abench. What I wanted to do with muscle...had been accomplishedwith love. - Terry Dobson 59
  60. 60. 40. Say what you see Learning to interact with people in a variety of everydaysituations, without making evaluations of any sort, by “saying whatyou see” clearly, and with few opinions, shows a high level ofintelligence and discernment. When we say what we see, we take ourcues from what is present right in front of us. We follow rather thanlead. We go where others are willing and ready to take us. We don’tinterpret. If a speaker is frowning, a skilled listener says “I see youare frowning.” It is much more helpful than offering aninterpretation, such as: “I see you are angry,” or “Why are you sad?” By saying what we see, we also avoid making comparisons orbeing judgemental. “I see clothes on the floor” can be a simplestatement of observation, without having to carry the judgement:“You are messy.” One central problem with language is that much of it is basedon evaluation, interpretation and comparison. It is a great challengeto find things to say that are not interpretations or comparisons.Saying what we see compassionately offers the speaker to show andtell us how they see things. It creates the opportunity for us to help aspeaker go deeper into their experience, and possibly reach “hardtruths” they may want and need to share (Skill no. 15).Practise: Look around you. Pick a series of things that you can readily see.Silently say what they are. Notice where judgement wants to enter in. “I seea messy room” is a different statement than the intended neutral assessment.“I see clothes on the floor. There are books on the bed. A pair of shoes is onthe chair.”60
  61. 61. 41. Use intention clarification Oftentimes in the heat of a passionate discussion, we findourselves at a loss for words. We don’t know what to say next. Weneed some space and a few moments to regroup and gather ourthoughts. At these times, it’s good to have a few “space-making”tools that we can use when necessary. One such tool is to ask directly what a person’s intention iswith their communication. They might not immediately know whattheir intention is, but often, after considering it for a few moments,many people will be able to tell you: “I want you to know how painful this afternoon’s argumentwas for me.” “I’m frustrated trying to find words to describe this morning’smeeting.” “What you’re doing with the family’s finances frightens me,and I want you to know I intend to be more involved.” Inquiring about a person’s intention works remarkably well toget both speaker and listener aligned and back on track. As thespeaker comes up with a clarifying response, the listener gains sometime to gather their thoughts and offer an appropriate response thatwill further the discussion, rather than shut it down or divert it. Suchan intervention can serve as a springboard to even furtherexplorations.Practise: Next time you find yourself in an emotionally intense interaction,remember to pause at some point and simply ask: “What’s your intentionwith what you’re saying?” 61
  62. 62. 42. Maximise the listening environment The physical environment where listening takes place can affectthe experience either negatively or positively. There are many venueswhere speaking and listening to one another is actually inappropriateand would negatively affect a listener’s ability. Some commonexamples would be trying to have a conversation during a movie, ina library, at a music recital, sporting event, or during a memorialservice or a wedding. Distractions also diminish the listening experience. Forexample, interruptions from cell phones or other attention distracterslike TVs and radios can hinder the listening experience. Skilledlisteners avoid unnecessary distractions. Skilled listeners also maximise the listening environment whenthey are clear about the purpose of the conversation and the timelimits available. Maximising the listening environment is soimportant that a skilled listener will put off conversation that cannotbe held in a place where listening can flourish.Practise: Identify half a dozen things that you can think of that go intomaking up an ideal listening environment for you. They might includethings like time of day (some people listen better in the morning, some in theafternoon or evening), physical space, indoors or out, time constraints anddistractions you can avoid (for example, turn off your cell phone), etc.62
  63. 63. 43. Learn to listen to your own lacunae The ways we are raised and the experiences we have aschildren significantly shape the way we see the world and behave asadults. We learn to pay attention to certain things and filter outothers. The result is that spaces or gaps form in our knowledge andperceptions that govern our daily life experience. Known as lacunaein the medical literature, these spaces in our neurological networkoperate as a kind of filtering system when it comes to seeing,listening, or speaking. Some of the things that work as powerfulfilters are painful childhood memories, strong family beliefs,unexamined assumptions, personal prejudices, and unconsciousexpectations. Many of us operate with awareness of these filters only whensome glaring omission, error or oversight makes them so obviousthat we can no longer deny them. For example, a belief that peoplewho have fun at work are “slackers” will stand in stark relief whensakes figures are tallied that show the fun-lovers breaking salesrecords quarter after quarter. The first thing for a skilful listener to do about their lacunae orfilters is to recognise that they exist in each of us. Dispellingignorance of them allows us to be curious and provides thepossibility for exploration and examination. This self-awareness thenallows us to be more open and compassionate to others and to ourown shortcomings.Practise: Based upon things that you find yourself forgetting or repeatedlyoverlooking, begin to notice what some of your own psychological “holes”might be. 63
  64. 64. 44. Practise Strategic Questioning Strategic questions have a number of elements that make themunique and set them apart from run-of-the-mill, everyday questions.Developed by San Francisco-based activist Fran Peavey, StrategicQuestions are asked with the intention to reveal ambiguity and openup fresh options for exploration. They can be tough questionsbecause they break through the facade of false confidence and revealthe profound uncertainty that underlies all reality. Nevertheless, theyinvite movement towards growth and new possibilities. StrategicQuestions empower people to create strategies for change in all areasof life. There are eight key features that distinguish a StrategicQuestion. First, a Strategic Question is helpful, dynamic challengethat encourages movement and change. Instead of “Where should Iapply for a job?” a Strategic Question might ask, “What work would Ibe happy doing for the rest of my life?” A Strategic Question encourages options. Instead of “Whomight we get to help us?” a more dynamic possibility might be,“Which people can we support and ally with to help build co-operative synergies?” A third feature of Strategic Questions is that they areempowering. Examples often begin with the query, “What would ittake...?” For example, “What would it take to make you feel your lifehad ever-expanding purpose and meaning?” Two more features of Strategic Questions are that they don’task “Why?” and they cannot be answered “Yes” or “No.” Questionsthat ask “Why?” close down creative options and often generate guiltand defensiveness. Questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No”often only skim the surface or bring dialogue and inquiry to a deadend. Next, Strategic Questions address taboo topics. There istremendous power to create change is inherent in them, because they64
  65. 65. challenge underlying values and assumptions. An example of such aquestion would be “What was it that kept us from talking about ourgrandmother’s cancer?” A seventh aspect of Strategic Questions is that they tend to besimply structured, focusing on one thing at a time. “What one thingcan you do to make your job more enjoyable?” or “What will restorethe vitality in your relationship?” Finally, Strategic Questions assume human equality. They aredeeply respectful of people and their capacity to change and grow inhealthy ways. They are positive, life-affirming inquiries designed andintended to support human personal and professionaltransformation.Practise: Spend a week asking different people Strategic Questions based onone of the eight characteristics. See how much depth comes out of thequestions. For deepening your understanding of yourself, spend some timecreating Strategic Questions about your own life. If you really want to digdeep, write 25 Strategic Questions about listening itself and see if you canlive your way into the answers. Be forewarned, your life will change inprofound ways! 65
  66. 66. 45. The ears can be ready when the heart’s just not All of us have discussion topics that generate great fear andanxiety. In his book, The Magical Child, Joseph Pearce recognised:“Anxiety is the enemy of intelligence,” and those things that we can’tface or speak about directly, have great power over our lives whetherwe’re aware of it or not. These taboo topics are often guilt or shame-based – some unfortunate incident from our past that lives buried inthe depths of our psyche. They live in us like live wires, and anytimesuch topics are raised, they set off a great charge of negative emotion.This is the experience of being emotionally triggered – irrationallyreactive – and many find the experience painful and surprising toboth themselves and to others. Such reactivity is often connected withloss, or fear, or some other early trauma, sometimes pre-verbal. As with much that has to do with skilful listening, the first stepin dealing with taboo topics is to be aware that “talking about X, forsome reason makes me very uncomfortable.” Money, success, sex,loss and death head up many people’s lists. But the specific topics arereally secondary. What’s primary for a skilful listener to know is thatour pre-existing uneasiness is triggered by such topics, and thatpeople who raise them up for discussion are most likely not trying todeliberately cause us pain. Taboo topics can be a stumbling block tohearing others’ hard truths (Skill No. 35).Practise: Over the next week, find someone with whom you share trust andask them to talk about a topic that feels taboo or unsettling. Death, love, sexand money are good trigger topics. Notice how it feels when the ears areready to hear but the heart is not. How can you hold your heart open to fullyhear what the speaker is saying?66
  67. 67. 46. Don’t blame the victim It is all too common in many cultures to place responsibility forviolations of respect and dignity on the people who have suffered.We blame the victim. It is human to feel that the victims areresponsible in some way. It puts such problems “out there” and helpsprotect us from anxiety about becoming victims ourselves. Blamingthe victim makes us feel more powerful and more in control of ourlives. Clearly, we reason, we are smarter, stronger, healthier, luckier,and have our lives more together, so nothing like that could everhappen to us. Blaming the victim is one way to avoid feelingpowerless when someone’s life is in crisis. Listening to victims and victim stories takes practise and skill.It’s easy to inadvertently and unwittingly slip into a blaming-the-victim stance. People who have suffered seriously in their lives oftenneed to tell their story over and over, in order to come to somehealing resolution. A skilful listener listens with fresh ears everytime, curious and open to the possibility that this will be the occasionthat resolution happens, that a victim will find an opening to thepossibility of healing and forgiveness.Practise: The next time you speak to someone going through a difficult timewho has already told you their story, be willing to hear it again, to listendeeply with open ears, heart and mind. See if you can hear something new,all the while trusting that listening is often all that is required for healing. 67
  68. 68. 47. Recognise your own “exit strategies” In addition to “anxiety being the enemy of intelligence,” it isalso responsible for all our “exit strategies.” Exit strategies are thethings we do to turn away from situations that make us anxious.Anxiety and exit strategies, if not skilfully attended to, work againstskilful listening. Exit strategies can take almost any form: daydreaming, pill-popping, drinking coffee or alcohol, watching TV, eating sweets,smoking – the list is endless. Anything that we move towards in anattempt to eradicate or reduce anxiety can serve as an exit strategy. Learning to identify, recognise and respond positively to suchexit strategies can serve several purposes. First of all, it helps us torecognise when we’re feeling anxious. Many of us rarely know – weturn towards our exit strategies before we are consciously aware ofour anxiety. A skilled listener learns about their exit strategies andlearns to overcome the anxiety or fear that creates them. Another reason to pay attention to exit strategies is that we canacquire options to deal with our anxieties. Instead of going off to graba beer, we can consider hanging in, exploring what’s true for us, andasking for what we want instead. We can begin to skilfully listen toourselves as we listen more skilfully to others.Practise: Pay close attention the next time you feel anxious. Be curiousabout what anxiety feels like in your mind and body. Is it a tension in yourstomach or lower back? A constriction in your chest or throat? A pain inyour neck? By learning to recognise anxiety’s telltale sensations in ourbody, we can then do things to address it directly.68
  69. 69. 48. Practise the power of attunement Attunement is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Itbegins as resonance in the mother’s womb when the baby attunes tothe mother’s voice. It continues throughout life in our intimaterelationships or with colleagues and friends – the feeling of being “atone” with another. Attunement is not the same as agreement. One can be attunedto another and respectfully disagree. With skilful listening, we canlisten and not judge and take in what the other is saying, but notnecessarily agree. Our body recognises when we are in attunementand it feels good! From recent neuroscience research, we know that attunementalso feels good in the brain. A brain under stress becomesunorganised and attunement helps soothe and organise it.Practise: When you listen to someone today, imagine yourself as aninstrument in an orchestra. Allow the speaker to play the notes he or shemust play and do not judge or try to change the music. Allow your ownmusic to play, with the intention of making beautiful music together. 69
  70. 70. 49. Practise taking crap In Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat, novelist Nevada Barrwrites of working in law enforcement. One day a grizzled old veteranlet her in on a little secret: the real job of a peace officer is to “takecrap.” However, he neglected to offer her many skilful ways toactually go about doing that. When someone is sending negative, “stinky” energy in ourdirection – anger, criticism, or complaints – it is almost as if they arehurling pointed barbs in our direction. Never remain seated orstanding directly in front of such energy. In order to continueskilfully listening without suffering harm, stand up, walk back andforth in front of the person, or walk alongside. Keep yourself out ofthe direct line of their communication. A moving target is muchharder to hit. For the most part, the speaker in such a state will not evennotice, and moving serves as a disciplined way to fill in the gapbetween hearing and reacting negatively in return. This is contrary tothe way we have been taught to deal with disturbing people andsituations. Mostly we’re taught to simply sit and take it, or to throwthe “crap” right back. But moving or “dancing” with a disturbingsituation, rather than simply “taking it”, is an extremely useful andworthwhile personal practise.Practise: Next time you’re in an emotionally charged exchange withsomeone, remember to get up and move. Stand and pace or walk side by sidein close proximity. See how it affects what you hear the speaker saying andyour ability to be non-reactive with them.70
  71. 71. 50. Learn to say “No” Saying “No” can be very difficult. Often we think we have tomeet the expectations of others. It can be a challenging, anxiety-filledact to set limits. But when we do things against our will, we end upfeeling used and resentful. A simple and direct “No, I am not able tolisten to you right now” is often the best solution. If someone requests us to listen, it’s fair to ask for time to thinkit over. We can do so and get back to them later. Do we really want tolisten? If not, then “No” is the honest answer. We can use anempathic “No” if we find ourselves listening to things that areattacking or harmful. It is not until we can actually say “No” that our“Yes” means “Yes” and our “No” means “No”. Here are five different ways to say “No.” 1. The direct “No”:“No” means “No”; 2. The reflecting “No”: we acknowledge thecontent and feeling of the request, then add the assertive refusal atthe end; 3. The reasoned “No”: we give a brief and genuine reason forthe refusal without opening up further negotiation; 4. The rain check“No”: A way of saying “No” to a specific request without giving adefinite “No”; 5. The broken record: Repeat the simple statement ofrefusal again and again. No explanation, just repeat it. It’s oftennecessary to use this with persistent requests, especially fromchildren.Practise: Pay attention to times when you say “Yes” and later realise youwish you had said “No.” Find some compassionate way to go back and offera “retroactive No.” In other words, just because we’ve said “Yes” initiallydoesn’t mean we can’ t say “No” later, and say “No” the next time it feelsright to do so. Becoming a skilled listener does not mean you have to listen toeveryone and everything all the time. 71