How to Listen to People

How often do you meet someone who hears you?  Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say?  And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say.  Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter”?

If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens.  He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time.  Mortal.  Fragile.  Fallible.  But infinitely valuable and good.

And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise.  Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind.  Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.”  And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.

You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person.  You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak.  You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love.  Because you love them you want to hear them.

You want to hear them.  But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really.   They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me!  You never listen to me!”  Stinging words.  But it is okay.  You are allowed to be imperfect. Forgive yourself, maybe by putting a hand on your heart and murmuring silently, “forgiven, forgiven.”  Recognize what you are feeling, accept what is and treat yourself with kindness.  Only by accepting and loving ourselves can we accept and love others.

Sometimes we are unable to listen, to hear others because we ourselves are so nervous, so relentlessly anxious that we can’t stop the chattering egotism of our own minds.   We can become so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently and compassionately to someone who needs us to hear them, and to whom we want to listen.  To listen is to love, to love ourselves and the person to whom we are listening.

Nervousness is just a habit.  If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion.   Emotions are okay.  They are real.  Sometimes they are responses to thoughts that may seem to be true but are not really quite right.  We don’t even need to figure out where the train of thoughts and emotions took off from or seems to be going.  We can simply acknowledge that we are “thinking” and, again and again, return to our breath and our hearts and the loving activity of listening.