When I walked into Starbucks today for a late afternoon cup of tea to accompany me on my way home, I walked in on a young barista telling his invisible co-worker in the back room how tired he was of being told what to do. He said, “I don’t want you to give me advice, I just wanted someone to listen. I am sick of people telling me what to do.” I heard her voice coming from the back, “That’s ok. I am a good listener…” He didn’t see me at the counter until I said, “No one can really tell anybody else what to do. Although there are certainly people who think they can. I do it sometimes with my kids.” It never really works though, not nearly as well as listening closely and deeply to what they are saying.
Active listening is when you are listening to learn about someone, which is different at its heart from defensive listening, when you are just waiting for your turn to rebut what you heard. The ancient poet Rumi described this listening heart as the deep ear in his chest. It is a profoundly naïve and curious place that affirms the mystery of the people you love. It recognizes that even the people that we think we know best, are separate from us and in the process of continuous change. Learning to listen to oneself in this way is equally revelatory. The essence of our deepest selves and the love we long to share with others lives in the spaces between what we say and in the silence to which we rarely pay attention.
This is often where long-time partners and relatives get tripped up. We stop asking real questions or giving real answers. We live together half asleep and stop wondering about the other person’s dreams or our own. In its place, our communications degenerate to a defended listening, filled with fear and uneasy silence. No one feels heard. Healing this place by bringing an open-hearted curiosity to listening by offering your present and unconditional attention is a profoundly loving act. It is in fact the most powerful way in which we can bear witness to our love. When we can stop doing everything else and focus our full attention on the person across from you, then you are truly living in the present.
In part, this requires training our mind to slow down to the speed of sound. This is much slower than the speed of light, which we process through our eyes and is normally how we process our fast-paced lives. Listening not only for who someone is, but what they are feeling behind their words requires the heart’s wisdom as much as the mind’s knowing. You can’t slow down enough to really hear when you are multitasking- texting, or even making dinner. Active listening is an act of curiosity and requires full attention to the moment you are sharing with someone else.
The more you practice actively listening, the more apparent it becomes that words don’t really describe things nearly as well as they describe our relationship to them. This is where misunderstanding comes from. In our rush to communicate we often hear the words, but not the heart of what is being said. Slowing down and paying full attention to the people you love gives you the chance to heal and connect in a way that merely speaking cannot. I am learning about the power of a loving silence, which gives the people you care about the chance to figure out what is inside of them.
Cultivating this curious listening in your relationships is one of the most powerful ways to transform it and add a place of grace between you, which allows both partners the space to unfold and know themselves. It will surprise you how quickly and completely relationships can heal within the reciprocity that occurs when you step inside another’s experience completely. Judgment is replaced with empathy and the experience unifies the speaker and the listener in such a way that both people walk away somehow enlarged and expanded. Connecting our ears to our hearts is an act of love.