As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak. As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention. I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been. If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time. It is not for lack of interest. I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.
Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move. They have heard me…but they aren’t listening. Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team. Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary. Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.” These are practices that one develops through meditation. By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people. We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds. It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.
Skillful listening is something we can all develop. At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening. These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention. When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment. Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.