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“This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.” ~ Sarah Dessen, Just Listen
Sitting at a table in a cute, crowded Lebanese restaurant, my beautiful friend AJ looked directly into my eyes and asked, “How are you?”
Before I could answer, the waiter arrived at our table ready for our drink order. I ordered red wine and she ordered white.
Think of how often we have asked our friends, family, or even strangers that question. The thing is, do we really want to know?
AJ really wants to know.
But not to respond, not to give advice, and not to judge.
AJ and I met at the yoga studio where I teach. She signed up for my Saturday morning 7:30 a.m. Hot Vinyasa class.
We immediately hit it off. She told me about one of her favorite poets, Andrea Gibson, and I talked about what else—yoga!
AJ is beautiful. She has a head full of curly red hair and a smile that lights up a room. Somehow, while she is working and raising two little humans, she manages a Patreon site encouraging us to live our happiest life. Her bubbly personality is infectious, and her time management skills are beyond what I can comprehend.
“So, how are you?” she asked, as our waiter set our wine on the table. I began weaving my most recent tale of balancing work and teaching yoga. My excitement and anxiety about my Apprenticeship with Elephant Journal and the Body Positivity workshop I was planning for the fall. I spoke of missing my children—my daughter and son-in-law live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my son lives in Chicago. My worries about my aging parents, blah, blah, blah.
She looked at me with a deep genuine smile.
Suddenly, I realized how intently she had been listening to my story and how uncomfortable it made me. I finished speaking, took a sip of wine, and smiled.
She pushed her glass away, took my hands into hers, and looked at me intently: “Now tell me,” she said, “How are you, really?”
Wow! I was taken aback. She saw right through the bullsh*t, the small talk, and the niceties we save for conversations with friends, especially newer friends.
When was the last time you could feel someone’s total presence like that? For me, it felt like eons since I was listened to so deeply. I could feel her looking into my soul, seeing my suffering, wanting to be there for me. She is a deep listener. A compassionate listener.
Never glancing at her phone or taking a sip of her wine, she listened.
AJ will sit with you and hold your hand, feeling your heart fill with the joy you want to share or the heartache you are trying not to succumb to. She sits with you, not coloring your story with hers. She doesn’t compare. She doesn’t offer anything other than herself.
No help. No advice. No comparisons—she practices deep compassionate listening.
Thích Nhat Hạnh defines compassionate listening as listening without judgement, criticism, or coloring another’s experiences with our own. It’s emptying our hearts and minds of our stories, and allowing ourselves to be fully present. Deep compassionate listening helps relieve the suffering of another.
And it feels So. Damn. Good. Heart full, brain buzzing, big warm hug good.
Why don’t we listen like that?
We have become so distracted with our constant connection to our phones, the 24/7 cycle of news, work, and the business of life, we have forgotten the simple act of listening. We don’t feel heard, at work or at home. Our children don’t feel heard at school or with friends.
We have a whole generation of little human beings attached to their screens. Why? Because the adults that care for them are attached to theirs. Texting and e-mail have taken the place of conversation so much that we have lost the art of communicating. We are constantly running home from work or school to get to the next activity. We rarely stop to take the time to converse with our partners or parents, other than a quick text about groceries or dinner or who is picking up the children from soccer.
Sitting at the dinner table with our families, television off, not a phone in sight, and having a real conversation has become old-fashioned. Not many of us take the time to allow another person the opportunity to be truly heard. No help or advice given, unless it is asked for. No comparisons to another person’s story of the day.
Feeling heard. Feeling safe to share opinions, struggles, and joys. Feeling fully able to express ourselves without judgement—this is what our society needs right now.
Deep compassionate listening can be challenging. If we are listening to someone who has a different opinion than ours, it can be tough to not be distracted by our belief that they’re wrong. But we can still listen deeply and with compassion. Even those who have a different opinion than we do want to be heard. Open dialogue can help us solve problems, without creating more.
Thích Nhat Hạnh says, “As long as compassion stays active you can listen to another who speaks injustices, wrong perceptions or judgements. You are protected by compassion and you are allowing another to be heard.” That is deep compassionate listening.
So how do we change our deeply ingrained habits and become compassionate listeners?
1. We can begin by practicing maitri—loving kindness to oneself.
Practicing maitri means taking time to listen to what is in our hearts, not in our heads. Feel it, sit with it—knowing whatever we are feeling is okay. No judgement or comparisons. Once we can do this for ourselves, it becomes easier to practice with others.
2. Thích Nhat Hạnh gives us three statements to use when we are compassionately listening. We do not even have to speak them out loud. They are communicated by showing up.
a) I am right here.
b) Tell me more.
c) I’ve got this (Not I’ve got this as in I can fix this for you. I’ve got this, as in I am sitting here with you in this.)
The next time I am with a friend or loved one who needs to talk, I want them to feel this way. I will sit with them and say, “I know you are suffering, and I am here for you. I know I haven’t been here for you before, but I am here now, and I want to be with you while you speak. Please speak honestly. I will not be upset. I will not judge or criticize. I am here for you only right now.”
Powerful. Safe. Heard. That is the art of deep compassionate listening.
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ~ Ralph G. Nichols