Listening With All Your Senses

Unless you listen, you can't know anybody. Oh, you will know facts and what is in the newspapers and all of history, perhaps, but you will not know one single person. You know, I have come to think listening is love, that's what it really is.--Brenda Ueland

I know a woman who went to the hospital for major surgery. She complained to me that when her friends visited they would all launch into their own stories about hospitals and surgery whenever she would try to tell them about her worries. Instead of getting the support she desperately needed she felt more alone than ever, and more frightened because of the horror stories they told her. This is a very common experience and is typical of what happens when people confine themselves to ordinary conversation patterns. Someone tells a story and someone else tells about a similar experience which leads to another story and another. There's nothing wrong with this--we build connections with one another through exploring our common interests and experiences. The problem is that we can be so wrapped up in what someone else's story reminds us of and in wanting to tell our own story that we can't be with each other in more than a superficial way. In times of crisis the drawbacks of this level of interaction become painful. That's when we need closeness and an emotional anchor to comfort and steady us, and we don't get that from casual conversation.

We also need a deeper level of listening when we are in a conflict with someone or attempting to interact with a person from a different cultural background. White middle-class Americans like to assume that despite superficial differences all people are basically the same. We say things like "I don't see the color of your skin" or "I don't care what your religion is." But the fact of the matter is that race, class, culture, gender, age, and sexual preference create different experiences for people which, in turn, shape our world views. We might share the same biological functions but we don't see the world the same way. The same experience can have a very different meaning to two different people. To bridge those differences we need better listening skills.

Basic Training in Attentive Listening

Better listening skills are within everyone's grasp and you can start right now. This is a section for doing, not just reading. You need a partner, about ten minutes of time, and a clock or timer. Choose one person to be the listener. That person will be paying complete attention to the other person for five minutes. When the time is up switch roles.

When it is your turn to be the listener, I'd like you to pretend you can't talk. Visualize tape over your mouth or bite your tongue--whatever it takes to remind yourself not to speak. Let go of your need to say the right thing. For this exercise there is nothing to say and nothing to do besides pay attention with all your senses.

Consider that you have a unique opportunity to get to know your friend in a deeper way than you may have done in the past and there is something about his or her experience of living in the world that is very important for you to understand. Even if he or she chooses to remain silent this information will be communicated to you if you pay attention. Tell yourself that at his or her core your friend has a spirit that is completely lovable, loving, intelligent, creative, powerful and happy to be alive. Anything else you see is an indication of tension or pain left over from hurtful past experiences. Allow the natural love and delight you would have for such a wonderful human being to show in your facial expression and in your touch. Make eye contact and hold hands with your partner if it is comfortable for both of you (there may be cultural or emotional issues that make this inappropriate).

As you pay attention listen with your ears but don't just listen to what your friend says. Listen to the choice of words, how they are said, and with what tone of voice. The pitch and loudness of a person's voice says something as well as the speed with which one talks. But that's not all. Listen with your eyes. Does your friend look relaxed, confident and powerful? Or do you see a furrowed brow, a clenched jaw, or hunched shoulders? Also listen with your body. If you are holding hands notice whether they are hot or cold, trembling or sweating and if that changes at any particular time. If your attention drifts away into daydreams, related memories or personal problems, simply bring yourself back to the present moment and resume listening to your friend as soon as you notice.

If you are the person receiving the attention there is nothing you need to do. You can use the time in anyway you like. You might want to talk about what it is like to have someone pay attention to you in this way or what your day was like. Is there something on your mind, something you'd like your friend to know? Or would you rather remain silent? You don't need to talk but do take a moment to notice how you are feeling physically and emotionally and any thoughts you are having. It may be useful to share that information but there is no requirement.

When you are receiving attention after having been the listener first, please do not refer to anything your friend said during his or her time. If something brought up memories or feelings for you, share this if you would like but do not comment on his or her experience in any way. Focus on your own experience.

When both people have had a chance to give and receive attention, share what it was like to do this exercise. Did you prefer giving or receiving? What did you like and dislike about each role? Places of discomfort indicate where your growth may begin if you decide to use the techniques in this book to create a regular space for exchanging support. In my classes, I find that most people are surprised to discover how thoroughly they have been trained not to be in these roles.

Some people find the previous exercise to be very moving. Many of us have never had anybody pay such complete attention to us. Just being looked at in a loving way can be a powerful experience. Other people find the attention to be embarrassing or anxiety producing. "What are they thinking about me?" "Am I doing this right?" Since it is likely that some feelings were stirred up, in the next chapter we'll discuss emotions and how to work with them.

© Copyright 2007 Sheryl Karas

Changing the World

One Relationship at a Time:

Focused Listening for Mutual Support

& Empowerment


. . . by Sheryl Karas

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