“They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.”
—St. John of the Cross
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The Power of Listening

© 2014 by Jennifer Read Hawthorne

Nature has given to men one tongue, but two ears, that we may
hear from others twice as much as we speak.

All humans are very much alike, it turns out. While ongoing research constantly reveals more on the subject, estimates on the genetic similarities among human beings have gone as high as 99.9 percent.1

Is it possible that less than one percent of our biological makeup can really account for the vast differences we humans display? Beyond the obvious physical differences, what about the myriad of cultural, religious, political and philosophical beliefs that either draw us together or pull us apart? We seem to be so different from so many others, but are we really? Don’t we human beings, in general, aspire to the same things?

This question was answered for me one day on a flight to Los Angeles when I found myself sitting next to an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in the Army National Guard. He was returning from 18 months of service.

The experience had had a profound impact on him. Stationed in Kurdistan, he had connected deeply with the people, whom he described as happy, even among the poorest. When I asked him how he had connected with the Kurds, he said, “It all comes down to listening. The Kurds love to sing and tell stories. Whenever possible, I would take off my weapon, remove the gear and sit with them. Despite my level of activity, I always tried to stop and just listen to them.”

He observed that people are the same everywhere—that these people had the same needs and hopes as most: to be treated decently, to havetheir kids go to school and to live in a world free from fear.

Listening, I thought, the secret weapon.

I knew it was true. Just months before, my husband and I had reached an all-time low in our ability to communicate. It was ironic because I was a professional speaker, and he had been a technical writer who had even owned and managed a documentation company. Both of us were known for our ability to communicate!

But true communication—whether spoken, written, or simple body language— has two parts: transmitting and receiving. As I would learn, my communication skills were built largely on the ability to transmit information rather than receive it. When it came to having a two-way conversation, I often interrupted, always thinking I had something more important to say than the other person. In fact, I could hardly hear what the other person was saying because I was so busy thinking of the next thing I would say as soon as I could jump in.

When both people in a so-called conversation are in transmitting mode, there is no opening for either to listen to the other, and communication breaks down in a big way.

Desperate to improve my ability to communicate with my husband, I prayed for a way to learn how to listen better. I attended a week-long in-residence program where the format of daily meetings modeled how to listen. It didn’t matter whether the person who had the floor talked for one minute or one hour; as long as she was speaking from the heart rather than the head, the rest of the group remained open, listening without interrupting. If a member felt bored or antsy or irritated with what the speaker was saying—or the fact that he or she was going on for so long—that person had to take responsibility for his or her own feelings without interrupting.

I came away from that process with an openness that allowed me to really listen and receive others, a skill that stays with me even today, years later. But listening can influence more than your personal life; it has the power to change the world.

Leah Green, for example, is head of Compassionate Listening Project, which brings traditional enemies together for the first time to listen to one another without debate, without blame. Israelis and Palestinians, for example, may find themselves at a CLP workshop listening to stories of people they’ve been taught to hate, dissolving into tears and embracing one another once they discover they share the same suffering, the same humanity. Surrounded by silent, loving witnesses to their stories, it is common for everyone present to shed tears, overwhelmed to be witnessing the first loving human contact between former enemies.

If you want to see whether you’re a good listener, notice whether you let people finish their sentences. The tendency to interrupt others means your listening skills could use improvement. But it’s worth it. We all know how to talk, but when we learn how to listen, we become skilled in the other half of true communication. Whether your goal is success, healing or love, better listening may be the key.