By Wendy Weiss, Programs and Membership Coordinator
To listen is to lean in softly
With a willingness to be changed
By what we hear
– Mark Nepo
We all want to be heard. Especially those of us who may have felt or feel silenced, forced underground, or are somehow feeling we are swimming against the current of popular or acceptable ideas and perspectives. We may have felt that we were part of something. We were gaining trust in relationships or groups, and then in the matter of a sentence, we are no longer received because we dared to speak our heart’s truths in a way that makes sense to us now but no longer seems to “fit” within the group.
We are no longer heard, and thus it can feel, no longer accepted. We become or are labelled, “other.” We are placed outside of, excluded.
Hearing then, the act of listening, is a form of acceptance, a form of inclusion, a type of loving that holds “other-ness” as a part of.
Listening is an art.
We know that in times of conflict and division that we are required to listen more closely. It is our first access point into understanding. Into learning. Into being better positioned to cocreating an outcome that brings resolution and restoration. Into being able to move forward again together. Unless we can open the doors for others, open the channels of receptivity to “other”, we are perpetuating division, perhaps without even knowing it.
It is not listening when we evaluate what is said so that we might find a crack in the logic, or a flaw in the argument, a weakness that we can capitalize on to perhaps change a mind or point of view, win them over to our side.
When we are truly listening, we are not entering into discourse to uphold models of debate or argumentation or other ideological or linguistic domination patterns. Those models are taught in Western schools and higher education and are practiced and enacted in many of our society’s institutions.
Listening is an action of inwardness, of taking in to ourselves the truth of another.
Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, a Ngangikurungkurr elder of the Aboriginal peoples from the Daly River in the Northern Territory in Australia describes it like this: “In our Aboriginal way, we learn to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn—not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. Our people have passed on this way of listening for over 40,000 years.” Her work, through the Miriam Rose Foundation, is committed to upholding indigenous ways and to bringing the spiritual dimension of the Aboriginal culture known as dadirri, an inner deep listening, to the rest of the world. She states simply, “To listen deeply is to connect.”
When we are practicing deep listening, we are hearing and accepting what is true for the speaker, beyond ourselves. We are willing to accept and allow their expression of their world view and how it affects them and forms their perspectives. When we are listening deeply, we feel into the meaning of their words for them, and what it means that we understand those words as is.
How is it then that we can listen in this way? Especially when we don’t agree, or feel threatened or uncomfortable in some way by what we are hearing?
Listening begins with our ability and willingness to hear. Are we really willing to hear what is, free from our assumptions, our stories, our conclusions about what has been said? Are we able to listen to our selves, especially in times of conflict or disagreement, to what we feel in our bodies: the accelerated heartbeat, the tightness in our throats, or the need to physically move away from the speaker?
When we are listening, we are tuned in to ourselves, to the speaker (“other”), to our environment. We are able to hold all of this information that is activated within and around us while giving our focus, our presence, to the one speaking. Our stance is receptive. We are taking in, receiving, including what is being said to our own understanding and perhaps even altering and revising our perspectives based on that listening.
In Deep Listening and Leadership: An Indigenous Model of Leadership and Community Development in Australia, Laura Brearly shows the thread of indigenous influence on modern practices: “Community development theorists from the Western tradition, such as Otto Scharmer and Karl Weick, advocate listening practices that align closely with the Indigenous concept of Deep Listening. When we are present, we are available to tune into other people and to our context. Otto Scharmer (2007) refers to this as “presencing”—a term that blends presence and sensing. It involves opening a space in which genuine contact can be made. The para-dox is that the more we are present, the more we are able to get out of the way and become available for other people. Further, Scharmer’s concept of Generative Listening aligns closely with Deep Listening. It invites community members and colleagues to be fully present to each other and identify what is happening and emerging in the moment.”
Generative listening allows us, at some point in the conversation, to respond with inclusion to what the person speaking has said. In this type of listening, we are inviting a deeper understanding. We can begin to ask questions for clarity and to be sure that we get the essence, the meaning, of what they have shared and what is important to them. Deep listening and generative listening pursue the cooperative thread of inquiry, “Who are you? What is important to you? What is it that you want me to hear? Where do we go from here?”
Listening is not the absence of talking; it is the first step to relating and cocreating through communication. So, we are being asked, more than ever, “Are we listening?” And, even more so, “How are we listening?” We are invited in together to wonder where we can go, what we can build, from here.