A Good Ear

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.”

– Henry Nouwen

Long before Reboot, the people in my life used to tell me I was a good listener. I had no idea what they were talking about, really, but lots of folks in my life–including a few strangers–would open up to me pretty readily. Generally, people talked, I listened, and they felt better. I have been on the receiving end of that too many times to enumerate, and grateful for every ear that’s been there to hear me process what’s up for me at various moments in my life when things were turbulent, transitioning, and happening all at once. A good ear is a priceless gift, and good listening is a healing art form we’re all capable of mastering–within ourselves and for each other.

Listening, however, wasn’t always easy–nor looking back, was I always good at it. There were many times when my “I’m just here listening to you” stance was jostled when I would become attached to their stories, feel all of their feelings, feel my own feelings from their stories, get triggered in my own ways depending on the content, or any of the myriad of ways in which “being the big ear” as a listener goes awry.

When that happened, my stuff would get in the way of their voice, trampling that sensitive space of receiving-listening and shutting them down to some degree in the process. I’m sure we’ve all felt this at one time or another. There you are in the depths of recounting or enumerating any aspect of what’s up for you to a rapt audience of one, and then comes an interruption, interjection, a quick solution, or pointed question from the one supposedly listening to you that usurps your space and your voice.

It’s a feat for us humans to be a good ear. In a recent OnBeing post, Sharon Salzberg wrote: “To me, listening is brave and springs from a deep well of generosity. This is why so few people are capable of it, and why doing so demonstrates strength.” It’s hard as a listener to hear the rough stuff of someone’s experience if our own stuff as the listener gets agitated and activated. If we can’t be generous, our stuff gets in the way and we end up not listening, which can feel pretty bad for the person who needs a big ear.

Listening involves putting ourselves and our own interests aside for a bit. It involves getting really curious about the other person, and wondering what’s going on in their world–as if we could step onto their map of their reality with them for a moment to see what they see from their point of view, feel what they feel, and see how things are oriented and structured from their place in space in their own perceptive vessel. All of which would require us–as listeners–to let go of any presumption that our way of perception, our map of the world, is the only map of reality. When we listen, we’re sitting at the edge of uncharted territory – that of the other person’s experience–despite how similar it may feel to us at times as their story draws parallels with our own.

As life comes at us fast and furiously, part of slowing down through the rough spots we find ourselves in is being able to be with what’s happening and all the feelings arising, even if they are uncomfortable. Being with ourselves as our myth-making/meaning-making machines spin stories, as we seek possibilities, and parse our memories of what happened or try to change the past–“if only, if only…”–can be tricky when left to one’s own devices and resources. Being alone with our thoughts and feelings can feel bottled up, like we’re holding too much, which can keep us feeling tense and perhaps unclear. It can keep us from being able to move forward until we sort things out for ourselves. Having a big ear helps.

In those moments, it helps to know you’re not alone, to have someone to listen, someone to bear witness how hard/scary/crazy/sad/maddening things have been for you. As our podcast guest, Matt Tara, whose company went under and left him with a ream of feelings to sort through, says to Jerry in this episode, “I want to talk to someone about all of this!”

How often do we check in with the people in our lives, to give them space to really be listened to? How often do we ask for what we need in those moments when we’re dying for someone to talk to about all of this? Slowing down to ask or and listen is a potent offering. Just by being present enough, brave enough, and compassionate enough to reach out and get curious about what’s going on for someone, we give each other the gift of being witnessed, seen, heard in a way that validates our experience, our humanness.

How can we be that patient and spacious and giving for each other? How can we develop our good ears? Susan Glisson, co-founder of social justice firm Sustainable Equity, suggests that we “Ask open and honest questions, ones you don’t know the answers to. Do this over and over again until you build the muscle memory of respectful and civil and truthful conversation until you create a new pattern of interacting that is healthy and whole and second nature to you.”

Here in this space, without rushing to fix, we give people a chance to hear themselves, and their own inner stirrings.

One of the simplest prompts to ask of each other, when we’re really ready to listen, is “How are you?” Sometimes that question feels to me like “How is your heart today, right now, in this moment?” How often do you ask that of friends, colleagues, your partner, your children–and how often do you sit back and listen, really hearing all that they have to say?

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, believes that we are all healers in some way for each other, asserting that,“Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence, we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing.”

Who knew so much could happen when you hold the space of that kind of silence? “I love listening,” writes poet Nayyriah Waheed, “It is one of the only spaces where you can be still and moved at the same time.”

And for one being listened to, being given the space to process, to hear ourselves in the silence of a good listener, allows something to click into congruence in our body-mind-heart, as if all the thoughts and reams of feelings named, unnamed and unnamable congeal or dissolve into more clarity or calm. We can see more of what is happening within, around and for us as we hear our own articulations. Ultimately, by being listened to, we can feel more connected to ourselves.