J Krishnamurti, the spiritual teacher, was in a car with friends who were involved in a heated discussion on “awareness.” There was a sudden jolt, but nobody paid attention—everyone was focused on their opinion and argument. Krishnamurti turned to them and asked what they were talking about. “Awareness”, was the reply, prompting him to join in and talk. He asked, “Did you noticed what happened just now?”
“We knocked down a goat, did you not see it?”
“And you were discussing awareness?”
One of the most valuable things that you can do for another human being is make them feel understood. There's a type of person whose grounded personality and presence is enough to instantly make people around them feel comfortable, feel “reached.” Demonstrating the ability to listen is a large part of it, and that puts successful listeners at the top of the list for likable and respected people.
The art of listening requires effort, as much as it does a kind of ease with oneself. There's no one-size-fits-all way of going about it, your method will switch depending on individual, role, and context. Under the skill of a good listener, you'll likely find a core personality that has spent a lifetime being curious about human behavior and life in general. A person who we're confident gets it, who has been there but doesn't feel the need to show it. Their choice of words and action “indicate without telling” that they have a reservoir of their own experience from which they can draw from in order to understand where you are and what you're going through in your own journey.
Patience is an important aspect of their listening. They have a good understanding of what to say and how to respond, and also what not to say and how not to respond. With that prudence comes their keen grasp of timing: they know that right now may not be the best time to discuss what you didn't do right; right now is about letting you get it all off your chest. The time to impart critique will come later—when and if it's the right time. And they're ok with that.
People who do a good job of listening are steady like a metronome: they maintain the pace and manage the tempo so everyone participating can hear the notes and feel the spirit of what is discussed. The latter point about feeling is important: so much of communication between people, institutions and roles can sometimes be inaccurate, misleading, miscommunicating, or lacking in essential detail. They know this, and have a good sense of how to navigate those gaps.
In a group setting, a good listener can “calm the room.” They know when not to focus on “the social contract” and, instead, how to reframe the discussion for the common good by emphasizing compassion. Listeners know how different people communicate differently, that the same words from two different people mean two different things—context and role play a significant part in extracting meaning. They're keenly aware of the difference between what was said, and what was heard—and who listened. When everyone is too paranoid to let their guard down, a good listener negotiates the space, bridging different communication styles, making everyone comfortable enough to express themselves honestly.
For most people, “listening” typically results with problem-solving (or avoiding the problem altogether). It's easy to jump in, offer advice, and fix the issue. They don't consider that the “issue” probably took some time to develop, and that it's hubris to assume that anyone can ignore the hard work of listening by just showing up to “figure out” a solution quickly.
And herein lies the first step to becoming a better listener: paying attention. When a listener prudently doesn't assume anything from what you say, it immediately signals their humility and confirms you're not in the company of a know-it-all, been-there-done-that personality. Instead they're investing the time to absorb, rather than come up with a response while you're talking. There's a patience that accompanies the humility—they let you talk, you can finish your thought without being hesitant, hurried, or interrupted. A healthy self-critical attitude is part of the listener's discipline. It takes maturity to actively listen with self-restraint, the best among us can always admit to needing more of that.
But listeners aren't limited to passive participation. While it's important for a listener to know how to take a back seat in the conversation, they are active in other ways. Listeners express by example and can be good models for emotional dependability in personal relationships as well as leadership roles: they tend to be the calm in the storm, quietly disarming and inspiring openness with the people they meet. By demonstrating a curiosity and appreciation for individuality in other people, they will often amplify a person's sense of self and sense of authenticity.
Listening to others is a way to exercise our spirit, it connects us with the most human part of ourselves. When we listen—truly silence ourselves and listen to another person—we are nourished by the richness of their experience, their way of expression, their unique style of living. That “wealth of self”—if we can listen to and harness it—becomes a doorway to deeper conversation. The deeper we can go, the quieter we can become, and the more we might connect through the core frequency of being human.
PHOTO: Cable, 2018, New York City.©2018, All Rights Reserved.