By Alexandra Kennedy
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”
I recently came across these wise words of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Compassionate listening is at the heart of good therapy, good communication, and a healthy self esteem. There is truly a time to just listen, to hold the space for another person to share and to empty his/her heart of all that encumbers it. We all need this—to be accepted in this moment just as we are. This kind of listening heals in and of itself.
When clients and friends ask how they can support someone who is grieving, this is one of the first things I recommend—to simply hold the space for their grief, to listen without any attempt to fix or change anything, to listen compassionately. Thich Nhat Hanh is right—just listening in this way can relieve the suffering of another person.
Likewise when I am working with couples, this kind of listening can transform the way they are with one another. As they work on issues between them, most couples get caught in a tense exchange as both partners try to make a point, to prove themselves right. So as one partner is speaking, the other is busy internally reacting and making a mental case for their side rather than listening to what is being said. Once compassionate listening occurs, the atmosphere in the room changes appreciably. Relationships change when each person feels heard. Instead of partners bristling with each other, they relax and become softer with one another. Voices become quieter. Suddenly there is vulnerability and a willingness to share much more openly with one another.
Let’s take this to another level. Can we take this compassionate listening into our quiet time with ourselves? We turn our attention within and invite the life force to flow through us. We stop running and arguing with the way life is; we stop trying to change ourselves. We listen deeply to our bodies, to our feelings, to whatever is showing up in this moment. It’s as though we tell ourselves, “I’ll be here for you however you are in this moment. I’m listening.” To meet ourselves fully in this way is an act of love.