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Deep Listening

By John Earle

Many of us want to be of service in the world, and are inspired to make our lives and our work useful to others. The desire to help others is noble, however, our most effective and powerful service is offered from detachment rather than based in fear. The detachment we speak of here is defined by Angeles Arrien as "the capacity to care deeply or maintain compassion from an objective place."

To achieve this kind of detachment we have to let go of the need to fix things, and our anguished imperative to have things be different. We need to be willing to let others have their own experience and to honor their experience. When we do this, we are taking up the wonderful work of love as a subversive activity. This type of love is quiet and does not seek reward or recognition. Our goal is to be able to create loving space for whatever is happening in the moment, rather than trying to create a specific outcome dictated by our fear. We create a safe container for other's difficulties, rather than trying to force fear-based change onto them. This is very spiritual work for, while its effect is visible, its cause is often invisible. In the moments we achieve this, we are working with love at a very powerful level. How we help others is not forced but flows naturally.

Learning to listen deeply is an excellent action practice when our goal is compassionate detachment. Listening is distinct from hearing. As a counselor, I am blessed to have the wonderful opportunity to practice deep listening. In my opinion, being a good listener is more difficult to master than being an adroit advisor, in addition, the results can be extraordinary. In any case, before we can be a good advisor, we need to be a good listener. When I was younger, before I understood the power of deep listening, I used to drive friends crazy with unsolicited advice. They would tell me a story about their lives, and I would immediately provide a solution to their dilemma or advise them how to look at their issue in a different way. They told me the advice was good but they also told me they didn't really want it. Chances are pretty good that they already knew the solution. We all actually know the solutions to our own issues and, if a solution is obscure at first, we can usually find it, or coax it out, by using the four strategies.

It turns out that most people do not tell their stories to get advice; they tell their stories to be heard. The less opinion and comment we share about their story, the more they feel heard. The deeper the level of listening, the greater the level of safety the storyteller feels. Sometimes people ask for advice, but actually, very often, they just want someone to listen fully and appreciate their condition. Often we find the solutions we seek by simply speaking our stories. Advice can get in the way of creating safety and compassion. To be a deep listener, one of the first things we have to do is give up the need and the desire to give advice.

When our kids were growing up, Babbie and I had an epiphany about giving them advice. As typical, fearful parents, we gave advice frequently and, of course, we felt confident this advice was both good and necessary. After all, it was born of our own experience. Weren't we doing what parents have done forever? Weren't we doing what a parent is supposed to do? However, we noticed that, the more advice we gave, the less the kids wanted to share their stories with us. One day we were listening to a radio talk show. A mother and her daughter were being interviewed. The daughter had just written a book about how wonderful her mother had been when she was growing up. When the interviewer asked the daughter what she felt was the salient quality of her relationship with her mother, the daughter replied that her mother had always given her good advice. The interviewer then asked the mother what she remembered about the relationship and the mother replied "I never gave her advice, if I could help it. I just listened. That way she always told me what was going on in her life."

Besides being some of the wisest advice we ever received for dealing with our own children, this recommendation to "just listen" opened up a new way of being with others, especially when they had something important they wanted to share. When we took this advice, our relationship with our children changed dramatically. They felt free to share their life and experiences with us and, because we did not offer advice all the time, they felt safe. Now our children are all adults. People are often surprised at how often the kids call us, just to talk. Of course, we still feel the urge to give advice, to try to fit them into a box that would make us comfortable, and sometimes we do offer advice. But advice can be taken as judgment, and we have noticed that there is a definite relationship between how much advice we give and how often we hear from our adult offspring. Too much advice definitely lowers the amount of true communication. By listening deeply we come to know when advice is really being sought, and we become more sensitive to the way it should be presented or if it should be presented at all. We learn the wisdom that knowing answers does not require stating them; that there are times when offering answers is not helpful, as when a person is in the middle of their own learning process.


John Earle is the author of Waking Up, Learning What Your Life is Trying to Teach You (from which the above article is an excerpt) and runs the site Waking Up Online. He is a spiritual teacher and counselor specializing in relationship and interpersonal communication. His clients include individuals, couples and institutions. He has produced and led numerous workshops and retreats. His personal experience of a great variety of teachers has given him a broad and inclusive spiritual perspective. A hospice volunteer for over 30 years, he and his wife Babbie recently started a hospice in Central America.
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