I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect with another person is to listen. Just listen. —Rachel Naomi Remen in Kitchen Table Wisdom
It is an act of service to listen generously to another human. In the world of spiritual direction, we call this contemplative listening. This is not a passive activity, a keeping your mouth shut until it is your turn to speak. It is not about waiting for another to finish so you can give your opinion. Generous listening, as Krista Tippett called it in her book, Being Wise: An Inquiry Into The Mystery and Art of Living,* is about showing up with alertness, curiosity, presence, and attention. It is about offering another person the chance to be known and heard, and maybe to hear some new things about themselves that they hadn’t noticed before. I believe this is what we want most in life.
It comes as no surprise to anyone reading this that our world is suffering from a lack of good listeners. When we listen generously to another for the purpose of understanding them, we also must become keen observers and excellent question askers. Our own egos and opinions are off limits when we listen this way, because this type of listening is not a conversation. This kind of listening is always about the other person. And although conversations are important, and we are in desperate need of meaningful conversation, I am afraid we might put the cart before the horse when we try to have conversations before we know how to listen.
—this type of listening is not a conversation. This kind of listening is always about the other person.
What is generous listening?
Generous listening involves your whole self: your ears, eyes, heart, intuition, and body. Offering yourself as a listener requires that you are watching, listening, feeling beneath the surface of the speaker’s words. You are alert, awake, paying full attention to another’s whole being. The content may be important, but the energy in the words, the body language, the silences, the look in the eyes of the other may be just as important. When you listen this way, it can become easier to ask a good question or make a good observation.
Generous listening also involves the willingness to be surprised by another, to let go of assumptions about that person and to listen deeply for their humanity. It means respecting the other’s dignity, their life experience, and being able to hold ambiguity and paradox. As you can tell, this type of listening is not easy or passive. When we listen deeply to another, very often the person will experience revelations or epiphanies about their lives.
Over brunch one day with a couple, the husband was talking about his upcoming retirement and some of the successful things that had happened to him late in his career. He was energized and bubbly, light danced in his eyes as he was speaking. I was listening generously, and I asked him a question, one that seemed fairly simple to me. “To what do you attribute the success you have had as a business man?” He looked at me, almost shocked but pleasantly so, and said, “Amy, no one has ever asked me that before.” And that surprised me. I really wanted to know, and that is part of the trick of generous listening. You have to want to know. What was it about this man’s life—his values, gifts, skills, and professional journey that made him successful?
How I learned to be a more generous listener
Can you imagine studying how to listen for a whole year? I did just that.
From 1996-1998, I was a student in a spiritual direction training program. It was a residential program, and we gathered for a week at a conference center each year. In between residencies we had scads of required reading and writing. For most of the first year, however, the emphasis was on what we called “contemplative listening”. This is a form of listening that has as an assumption that people have a soul, and that soul has a journey to find its way into alignment with God’s purpose for it. We listen to give the soul a chance to show up and align itself with its life’s purpose. And we listen to give the soul a chance to speak. Our job is not to comfort, although that may happen. Our job is to hold enough open space that the soul can show up without being judged or changed.
Part of this kind of listening, this generous and contemplative listening, is a belief that when we listen like this, we are always inviting God into our listening. We have the assumption that God is present in our listening and our speaking, and there is something bigger afoot, a mystery we cannot name, a mystery that is actively at work in our lives.
Listening is not easy
Whether you are more comfortable with the term “generous listening” or “contemplative listening”, you can be assured that when we listen to another like this it will not always be easy. We may hear things that leave us feeling helpless, powerless, grieved, angered, or sorrowful. We will certainly hear things that will challenge deeply held convictions and will trouble our nicely formed opinions. And so the generous listening that started as a gift to another becomes a gift to us, a way of encouraging our own growth and consciousness.
You don’t need a graduate degree or specialized training, although I am truly grateful for both of those things. I believe all of my training has helped me be a better therapist, spiritual director, friend, colleague, wife and mother. Here’s the thing: You can do this if your heart is willing. Set aside your opinions, your assumptions, bring as much of yourself with you as you can possibly muster, and then just listen generously. Watch, hear, and feel, what this other beautiful soul is trying to tell you. Ask good questions. And keep listening.
And So It Goes…..
The world continues to be messy, and of course, marvelous. If you have been reading our blogs this January, you already have some important skills to keep the marvelous going in your life. How are you doing with falling in love with life and identifying your core values? Today’s skill, listen generously, is worthy of your time and energy. Let us know how you are doing with it and what you are finding out as you listen to another.
Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it is given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. … Rachel Naomi Remen—Kitchen Table Wisdom.
Warmly and with the desire to listen generously,
I have a private practice of individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling in Columbia, SC. A few years ago my book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power of Everyday Life, won Spirituality and Health’s top 100 books of the year. I am passionate about many things in life, but especially about psychology, spirituality, dancing, cooking, marriage, family, friends, writing, traveling, and learning. www.amysandermontanez.com
You can email me at [email protected]
*Even though I used an Amazon link here, I highly encourage you to order from your local bookstore. Here in Columbia that is Odd Bird Books. Tell Ben we sent you.
WE WROTE A BOOK!
(And we think it is beautiful!)
No one is too young or too old to develop or refine your Adulting Skills!