Are We Really Listening?

imageIn Krista Tippett’s book,”Becoming Wise, An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living,” her first chapter is about words. She challenges us to participate in what Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen calls “generous listening.” This is what Dr. Remen works to teach young doctors to practice. Tippett talks of generous listening involving “a kind of vulnerability – a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.”

Listening generously? That’s hard work. It takes practice. Often times it can feel like people are listening to us, waiting for us to finish . . . so they can talk. How does that feel? How often are we guilty of doing that? More often than my pride permits me to honestly admit.

As a lawyer, I was privileged to be invited to listen to a lot of people as they shared their often intimate stories. When I truly listened, letting go of my assumptions and living in the ambiguity, I had a more thoughtful and fulfilling experience. Sometimes I just listened, without asking questions. Sometimes the potential client or client – needed to be able to just tell me their story. . . their own way. Often I was surprised at how powerful the sharing of that experience could be for both of us. When I listened to understand, was present, not rushing, it was amazing what I actually heard. Listening generously also helped me formulate more thoughtful questions.

In our political arena, where we debate critical issues of the day, we seem to have an overwhelming need to be right. We seldom see our political leaders listening to “understand.” Facebook and Twitter provide all too comfortable forums for our sharing of opinions, but not for understanding. Our obsession with efficiency and time distract us from being fully present and vulnerable in our listening. How often do you see people instinctively reach to answer their cell phones while in the middle of a conversation with someone else? How do you feel when that happens to you? Unimportant? Less valued? Maybe many folks just accept that as the way things are. Remember, you get to decide how you respond to such things.

Years ago, when my wife would come home after a particularly trying day at the clinic or hospital, and start telling me about the varied problems she had encountered, the lawyer in me used to go immediately into advising and counseling mode. I’d offer potential solutions and questions she might pose to try and help – to fix things. Ah, but to my shock and amazement, my wife just wanted me to listen, generously, as she shared with me the challenges of her day, without trying to fix anything. That realization was both difficult and freeing for those of us lawyers who are notoriously slow learners. Be present.

Sometimes listening generously takes time. In our busy world of trying to control time, we can lose sight of why we’re here. At the end of the day, it’s about our relationships with other people. Listening generously is essential to fostering healthy and life giving relationships.

Think about the people in your life who you would consider generous listeners. People who seem to “get you.” These are the folks who when you talk to them you feel like you have their undivided attention; listening to you is the only thing that matters to them. There is a feeling, deep in your soul, of being connected to this person in an almost holy or spiritual way. Think about how different our world could be if we practiced this type of generous listening.

What if we actually listened to understand the person with whom we did not share the same opinion? Our listening generously, without the ultimate goal of changing the other person’s “wrong” opinion, enables us to share a vulnerability with this person and leaves open the opportunity for a continuing relationship and dialogue. During my time as a legislator, I found that listening to my colleagues with a differing opinion, to understand, could lead to future opportunities for us to partner on other issues of mutual interest. Sometimes my own self righteousness and need to be “right” undermined my ability to cultivate those relationships and opportunities to “understand.”

As my wife so aptly asks me: “Do you want to be right, or be in relationship?” I have learned over time that the right answer is not “yes.”

Are you listening?