Today is Friday, April 12, 2013.
Listening has been described as an art, a skill, and a discipline. When you think about it, it's really all three.
Nowadays there's lots of information about active or proactive listening, sometimes called "deep listening." One quote from Stephen Covey that's going around on social media says, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Next time someone starts talking to you, try monitoring yourself. When I did this I realized that I am often guilty of listening with the intent to reply. In my head, I'm already framing what I want to say while the other person is still talking. How can I be listening when I'm doing that? This realization was an uncomfortable reminder of a lady who was in my master's degree cohort. I noticed that she would repeat things six or seven times. Finally I called her on it.
"Why do you always repeat the same thing so many times?" I asked.
"Because I don't feel like you're listening," was her reply. Ouch!
As a teacher, I often told kids that if they were talking, they couldn't possibly be listening. And yet, we adults are often guilty of talking while others are speaking – we're simply talking inside our heads. Our listener may not be able to tell, but the effect is the same as if we were taking out loud. A Native American proverb puts it very bluntly, "Listen, or your tongue will keep you deaf."
In school when we teach kids to listen, we have a checklist of behaviors to watch for. Can they participate in a game of "Simon Says"? Can they do the actions along with a song or story? Can they follow the teacher's directions or answer simple questions about themselves? Can they follow the conversation of other kids? Can they follow and retell a short story? Can they match what they hear to the correct picture? Can they recognize important words in a song or story? All of these are evidence of listening, but none of these things is listening in and of itself. As with a lot of other areas, we teach the "form" first and the actual function happens later.
How can we tell an adult is listening? The listener sits up straight, and even leans forward, nodding his or her head every so often. The listener tracks the speaker with his or her eyes. He or she doesn't do anything else while listening, such as check for text messages, look at the clock or out the window, doodle on a piece of paper, or pick up a piece of paper and start reading it. (I know some people say they listen better while doodling, but save that for listening to a lecture or talking on the phone. Doodling while listening to one other person is just plain rude, in my opinion!) The active listener gets involved at some point by responding to what the speaker has said or asking for clarification, but only after the speaker has finished making his or her point. Some people like to paraphrase the speaker has said to be sure they have understood it. Good listeners ask open-ended questions, and avoid rhetorical questions. They probe for more information.
In addition to the behaviors that are visible, good listeners neutralize their feelings. We are never obligated to agree with everything a person says. When we put our feelings in neutral, we are able to listen to other people's opinions and points of view without being shocked, disgusted, angry, or defensive. Aristotle once said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." We can always listen to all sides of a question first, then evaluate it and either accept it or reject it later. I might add that it's not always necessary to tell the speaker that we agree or disagree. All we need to do is listen. Telling the speaker our opinion is not really going to change theirs, no matter how much we might wish for it to be so.
When I reflected on the topic of listening, I came up with a list of important things/people to listen to.
1. Listen to yourself. All of us have this little voice in our heads that never shuts up. Some people call it The Voice. The Chinese call it the "monkey in your head." It plans the days activities, points out the obvious, assigns praise and blame, gives opinions and advice, and generally gives a running commentary about what's going on and how you feel about it. A lot of times it is busy talking about us, usually in negative terms.
As I pointed out earlier, most of us are busy listening to this same Voice preparing our next response, even as someone else is speaking to us. Once we start paying attention to this voice, we begin to see how it shapes our understanding of what someone has said, often without much regard to what they actually did say. One of the best ways to shut this inner voice up is to learn to do some kind of meditation. It doesn't matter what technique you use. Instead of forcibly shutting the voice up, however, what actually happens is you begin to listen to it and just observe, without making judgments, then you let the thought go. Eventually, you turn your attention to something else and the voice stays quiet. You can do this while listening to music, too. Just follow every note without saying anything to yourself. It takes a bit of practice, but you can do it. Once you've mastered that little voice, you can shut it up anytime simply by paying attention to something else (such as whoever is talking to you at the moment.)
The other thing to listen to is your self-talk, those comments you make about yourself. Self-talk is like input into a computer. The computer doesn't care whether the input is positive or negative, it simply acts on whatever input you give it. Similarly, the subconscious mind stores all this self-talk as input, then acts on it, regardless of whether the input is positive or negative. If I tell myself that I am a klutz, that I am uncoordinated, my subconscious will force my body to do something klutzy, such as tripping over something in the middle of a room. If I tell myself that I am unworthy, it should be no surprise when I don't get that job promotion I wanted. If I tell myself that I am a failure, my subconscious mind will literally direct me to fail. When we listen to our self-talk, we can begin to change it by means of meditation and affirmation exercises. I wrote about doing this in a previous blog entry, entitled "The Power of the Subconscious Mind."
2. Listen to your body. When I was a teenager, I used to get up as late as possible before school started. Then I would rush to dress and comb my hair - often this was done simply by running my fingers through it. I would wolf down breakfast, if only a shot of orange juice or a cup of coffee, then run out the door, breeze by my locker, and dash to class, usually sliding into my desk just as the bell rang. When I was a senior, I noticed that I suffered from gas pains in the morning, and it was a struggle to keep myself from passing gas until I had time to go to the toilet around midday. I asked my mom what I should do, and she advised me to take a bit more time in the morning. She told me I had to listen to my body, and pay attention to what it wanted to do, and when. That's when I realized that my body wanted to have a bowel movement in the morning, not long after I woke up. Since that time, I have made it a point to listen to my body, and I have learned to arrange my morning routine around my body, rather than forcing my body to adhere to an arbitrary routine.
Nowadays, our thinking about illness in general is changing. We realize that getting rid of the symptoms of illness, per se, will not always heal us. You can heal a cold sore, but if you don't get rid of the stress that is causing it, the cold sore will come back. You can take a cancerous mass out of the body, but if you don't change your lifestyle, the cancer may come back, with a vengeance the next time. You can treat stomach acid with any number of over-the-counter medications, but if you don't learn to eat the right foods, avoid eating late at night, and control your stress, you will continue to have stomach acid. When we treat illness as a message from our bodies, we can learn to look past the symptoms to the underlying causes of disease.
3. Listen to others – especially kids. Listening is not just an action; it's an attitude. When we truly listen to another person, we are acting on a mindset that says each Soul is valuable, that we value the speaker as much as we value ourselves. We tell people with our silence that what they have to say is important (even if we don't agree with their thinking) simply because they themselves are important to us.
For my master's degree project, I had to videotape a particular class three times, then go through the tape and analyze it, identifying what I was thinking at the time and what was actually happening. If you've never filmed yourself in a classroom, it can be very edifying. A lot of teachers, myself included, like to think that we know everything that's going on in our classrooms, but that is not the case. In one video (thankfully, not the one I used for my master's project) I saw a pencil flying through the air from one student to another. How could I have missed that? Simple – I was paying attention to myself, not to the kids.
Anyway, for my master's project, I didn't have the luxury of having someone hold the video camera to get different views of the lesson. I had to set the camera on a tripod and focus it on the table where the small group would be sitting, with a side view of myself and the kids. At the end of the lesson, one little girl hung back and started talking to me. I wasn't listening carefully to her. Instead, I was trying to figure out how to turn the darned video camera off. Meanwhile, the little girl stared right into the camera lens and kept on talking. I told her to go back to her classroom, then finally figured out how to turn off the camera. When I reviewed the video, I realized to my horror that the little girl was telling me about something that had happened to her at home. What she said froze my heart, because she was trying to tell me she was being abused. It was one of the great lessons of my life.
The Chinese character for the verb "listen" is incredibly instructive. All Chinese characters have parts called "radicals" that are combined in different ways to create the pictograph for a given word. Children are taught the basic forms, and then how to combine them. The word for "listen" has no fewer then six parts. In the upper left is the character for ear, which is certainly no surprise. The character below it is "king." When we listen, the ear is king. On the right side, the top part that looks like a cross is the number 10, and the part that looks like a rectangle divided into three parts is the character for "eye" turned on its side. In a previous blog entry, I wrote about the inner eye, called the "Tenth Door." My interpretation of the "ten plus eye" part isn't the same as the standard one (focus as if you had ten eyes), but I believe that when we listen with our inner eyes and ears, with the idea that we are all connected to one another as well as connected to the Source, we do a better job of listening to what people are really saying, because their words don't always match their actual intent. We have to learn to "listen between the lines," as it were. Whatever the speaker is saying, he may really mean, "I'm afraid" or "I just want someone to acknowledge me." Just under the rectangle divided into three is a horizontal stroke that is the Chinese number one. If you put it together with "ten eyes" it has a connotation of a single-pointed focus on the speaker. Finally, the four strokes in the bottom right corner mean "heart," reminding us that we must listen with our heart, in order to read people's emotions as well as their thoughts and words. Underlying intentions are important, even if the speaker is not aware of them. I like to listen to kids this way, especially, because they are generally not very good at expressing themselves. Often, I have to rephrase their question again and again until I can understand exactly what it is they are asking me.
One of the most important things we can do for another person is to listen, just listen, when people need to vent their emotions or talk through their ideas. In The Slow Burning Love of God, Harold Klemp, the Spiritual Leader of Eckankar, wrote, "Sometimes being a Co-worker with God means just to listen to someone else. When they come to you because they need to talk, you have to have the awareness to just simply listen to them.
"That is one of the golden gifts of the people who are Co-workers with God: the ability to listen to others. When people are in trouble, they don't need to hear how smart you are. They don't need all kinds of words of wisdom.
"The greatest wisdom and the greatest love you can show someone else is simply to listen when they're in very bad trouble."
4. Listen to the earth. Recently, my attention has been drawn toward my Native American friends and acquaintances, many of whom post various messages on Facebook about listening to Mother Earth. Many Native Americans and others are saying that the various symptoms of climate change, such as superstorms and other strange weather phenomena are just like symptoms of human illness. They are telling us that Mother Earth is not well, that she needs for us to pay attention to how we treat her. Progress is a good thing, but when we cut down forests, deplete our natural resources, ravage natural habitats, and poison our soil and water supply, we are harming not only Mother Earth, but ourselves, in the long run.
5. Listen to God. All the world's spiritual traditions tell us that we need to learn to listen to God. Each path expresses this a little differently. In the Christian Bible, Proverbs has a couple of really good pieces of advice. Proverbs 18:13 says, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." Proverbs 19:20 says, "Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future." Rumi, the Sufi mystic, wrote, "Keep silence; be mute. If you have not yet become the tongue of God, be an ear."
How can we listen to God? Many people say they listen to God when they pray, but they belie that when they talk, talk, talk, but then forget to listen. In his book, Our Spiritual Wake-up Calls, Harold Klemp, says, "Correct prayer is listening to God. If a person is going to err in prayer, it's through too much telling or talking to God. There's nothing wrong with telling or asking; there's nothing wrong with talking to God. But after you've asked your question, listen. Be quiet and listen."
Sometimes God's answer will come in the form of an intuitive nudge, or through something that someone says to you. You may be drawn to a book that contains just the right information, or someone may recommend the perfect health professional to treat your ailment. The answer may come in the form of a sign – literally! I've heard a number of stories over the years of people who saw the wisdom they were asking for in road signs and signs on the sides of trucks, even license plate messages! God also speaks to us in dreams.
The Bible tells of various people who were warned of future events in dreams, but for some reason, most Christians don't really pay much attention to their own dreams. If they did, they would find that God still speaks to us in the language of dreams. Job 22:14-15 has this advice: "For God speaks in one way, and in two, through man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds...."
"Dreams touch every level of our life," writes Harold Klemp in Spiritual Wisdom on Dreams. "They may let us glimpse the future, or give suggestions for healing, or share insights into our relationships. Above all, they can and will steer us more directly toward God."
It behooves us all to become better listeners. :-)