I’ve been thinking about something these days…. given the way our society is set up, it’s no wonder that many of us don’t think of listening as a powerful activity! The way things are currently structured, listening is usually what the powerless are forced to do, and what the powerful refuse to do.
I get that, from a spiritual perspective, no one is truly powerless. Yet in the systems we live in, a parent can punish you, a teacher can get you in trouble, a boss can fire you. And whether as young children in a family, or as young people in school, or as workers in a workplace, many of us have been “forced” to listen to those with authority, who have the power-to-compel.
With few exceptions, we ourselves have not been deeply heard in those contexts.
What we usually learn from this is that if you are a powerful person, you get to tell others what to do. And they? Well, they have to listen to you (or at least, pretend to do so.) To make some useful distinctions, I’m going to call that “forced” listening. Unfortunately, it’s the only kind that many of us know.
Then there’s “fake” listening. Some adults have learned that the appearance of listening can be a manipulative way to find out what others want, so that those others can be more easily convinced to buy something. Others sometimes offer a façade of listening as a short-term fix that gives employees the illusion that they are being heard. Like our society’s mad addiction to short-term profits, all of these practices are usually extremely damaging in the long run.
And then there’s “free” listening. And that’s another story altogether.
“Free” listening (or generous listening, or authentic listening, or heart-centered listening) is not something that you can compel. Just like you can’t force any one to open their hearts to you.
It’s also not something that you can buy, either….as anyone who has had a negative experience with therapy can attest. (Consumer alert: when you pay a therapist, you are not paying them to listen. You are paying them for their time. Some of them choose to really listen, instead of just going through the motions. Though it’s one of the marks of a good therapist, it’s not as common as one might expect!)
“Free” listening, real listening that is freely given, is a priceless gift. It is an expression of genuine caring, by someone who is freely choosing to be there for you. Not just going through the motions because they have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed.
In our faux democracy, we often confuse the “opportunity to speak” with the experience of being heard. While they may be related, they are two totally different things.
I remember attending a local public hearing a few years ago, where a long line of eloquent, thoughful, caring community members got up to speak about a community issue they cared deeply about. At the end of the evening, they went home hugely disappointed. While they had each gotten a chance to speak, they had not received any indication that they had actually been heard.
In contrast, the experience of being truly heard is extremely powerful. It has the power to nourish, and to bring forth life. And this power grows exponentially, whenever “free” listening moves beyond a one-on-one encounter, into a community experience. Whenever we create the conditions where people are able to truly hear one another – that kind of listening is so powerful, that it can literally bring shared worlds into being.
The women’s movement was born from that kind of power. Feminist theologian Nelle Morton described consciousness-raising groups as “hearing one another, into speech”.
In education, some teachers create a listening environment in the classroom, and listen to children as they make meaning – for example, invite students to think aloud as they share different ways they’ve discovered for working through a math problem. This is called constructivist education, and it’s a powerful way for children to develop the ability to think and problem-solve, instead of just applying formulas by rote. I wrote about it briefly in the introduction of this article on co-creative approaches to dialogue.
In business organizations, there’s a small yet vital history of work places that have become hugely effective (and profitable!) by really listening to their workers, instead of only pretending to do so. (Here’s a great book on this topic…)
In therapy, the Open Dialogue movement in northern Finland has shown how offering family members respectful opportunities to deeply hear one another, on a frequent basis, helps young people recover from schizophrenia and other mental health conditions. In the long run, it is also more cost-effective than hospitalizations. (Warning: there seems to be a disinformation campaign now about this. Just like tobacco companies didn’t want you to think that smoking was bad for you, and oil companies didn’t want you to think climate change was real, pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to think that it’s possible for people to get better by being heard, with only a minimal use of meds.)
So… helping people feel deeply heard, in a group context, can be powerful stuff!
Here’s the thing, though… to offer real listening others, we ourselves need the opportunity to be deeply heard. We need places where we can have the space and the support so that we can listen to our own selves more deeply. Because the parts inside of us, that we have not yet listened to, are the very places that can make it hard to really listen to someone else – especially if that person has similar hurt places inside.
Sure, we can try to “force” ourselves to listen to someone else, for all sorts of good reasons… yet the more we have made peace with our own hearts, the more we can freely offer heart-centered listening to others.
In therapy, we call this “supervision” – a horrible word which can call up images of a boss looking over your shoulder. In this particular context though, what it means is quite the opposite. It’s not about having someone tell you what to do. Instead, the point is that if you are listening to others full-time, you need to have people who can listen to you.
I’m currently exploring the possibility of offering an on-line peer support group, for those of us whose calling is listening to others, whether we work primarily one-on-one or with groups. I’d love to hear from you below… what kind of support do you already have in your life, for your deep listening work? And if that’s an area where you would welcome more support, what might draw you to participate in that kind of listening circle?