The Spiritual Hospitality of Listening
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who listens so attentively and intently that you feel like you are the only person that exists? Whose silence invites you to take up space, be less cautious, more authentic and engaged? Whose stillness suggests you can talk about complicated issues, attend to your emotions, or follow your curiosity?
What about the conversation with the person who only pretends to be listening, when the reality is they are simply not speaking? When any pause in the conversation is an opportunity to advance their own perspective, marshal an argument or counter-point, or shift the content from anything that feels insulting, boring or threatening to them?
Most of our conversations fall somewhere between, but there does seem to be a skills deficit – or perhaps a lack of interest – in good listening right now. Everybody is so busy talking. Yet the quality of our listening skills has a significant impact on the quality of our relationships - and the degree of trust, empathy, and intimacy we cultivate.
Most people know intellectually how to be good listeners. Julian Treasure, author of How to Be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening, uses the acronym RASA, the Sanskrit word for “essence,” to cue us:
Receive – pay close attention to the person
Appreciate – provide verbal or behavioral cues that you hear what they are saying
Summarize – reflect what you’ve heard back to the person speaking
Ask – ask questions afterward to show you’re engaged and interested
There is a great deal of literature and training dedicated to the nuts and bolts of being an active listener and, without a doubt, these are helpful skills to develop. Perhaps even more important, however, is the spirit in which you approach conversations, whether they are difficult or benign.
When we listen well, we lay the groundwork for everything that follows.
• If we set the intention of entering conversations with an open mind, and show up as curious and vulnerable, it helps cultivate a more intimate connection.
• If we suspend judgment and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we find new possibilities or common ground.
• If we can be eager to hear and learn, quiet our responses and stay in the moment, we create the space for new understanding or opportunities to emerge.
This is not easy. Our culture is frantic, today’s discourse is highly charged across groups and institutions, important messages come in sound-bites, and searching for understanding through listening does not seem to be as highly valued as advancing your argument or cause. There is an incredible amount of noise right now.
Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic Priest, states:
“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
Pope Francis also spoke to this gift and responsibility, asserting:
“Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.”
Lofty goals, I know, but something worth aspiring to in our most intimate relationships and our broader relationships in the community. How we choose to enter into conversation – and the space we create for listening, empathy and compassion – shapes our capacity for connection.
Dr. Brene Brown, researcher and best-selling author, uses the mantra in difficult conversations of: “I’m here to get it right, not be right.” This suggests that If we focus on getting it right, we engage to listen and learn. If we have to be right, we are organized around defending our stance. Conflicted points of view are only exacerbated when a person doesn’t feel heard. Positions are polarized when someone feels their emotions or perspectives are not validated. Listening with compassion doesn’t protect you from sloppy, imperfect or difficult conversations, but there is more room for recovery and connection when we listen with the intent to understand.
Dr. John Gottman, renowned marital and family therapist and relationship researcher, asserts that the art of intimate conversation is built on good listening and the building of trust. He suggests navigating conversations utilizing the ATTUNE method, the foundation of which is good listening. Though this approach is most often used as a roadmap for couples, I can think of few conversations that would not benefit from this approach.
Awareness – Be aware of and acknowledge the other person’s emotional state
Turning toward – Attend to what you are seeing and hearing. Talk about the emotion you are observing Tolerance – Accept where the person is emotionally, without trying to shift their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to adopt their perspective, rather it acknowledges that you respect it Understanding – Strive to understand what the person is trying to communicate, put yourself in their shoes. A great deal of progress can be made by simply saying, “help me to understand this better." Try not to correct, counter or dismiss what you are hearing. Non-defensive listening – this means biting your tongue and suspending your judgement or feedback. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say is in the service of your goal. Empathy – Work to understand what the other person’s experience is and practice kindness and compassion.
One of our greatest needs is to be seen and understood. Listening with awareness, and being attuned, will make our conversations more meaningful and strengthen our connection with others.