Listening with the Ears of the Heart

I am a privileged listener, like cab drivers, clergy, bartenders and hair stylists. My ability has been long-honed, as a career therapist with over 40 years under my belt. It started way before I set foot on campus in 1977 at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in Glassboro, NJ. I figure it began when I was a kid and my friends would come to me for advice. Back then, I didn’t have the benefit of the education to offer anything of substance. I did learn the art of nodding, smiling and saying, “um, hummm,” while I held space. Apparently, it was what they needed, since they kept coming back for more.

It evolved into a desire to do it professionally, while as a high school student, I needed to figure out a career path to pursue. It wasn’t as if I had planned to be a social worker/psychotherapist. Back when I was growing up, most women I knew were teachers, nurses or clerical workers. My own mother was a switchboard operator at Sears for much of her working life during my childhood and into her retirement in 1989.  

When I considered my talents, listening loomed large. Sitting at a desk and creating a safe container for clients while they unpacked their baggage accumulated over decades, felt like it would be rewarding. On any given day, I could be with those who are contemplating changing jobs, so I am offering career counseling. They may have lost a loved one, so I am doing grief counseling. They may be having flashbacks from PTSD, so I am helping them to ground themselves. They may be in a tumultuous partnership, so I am doing couples counseling. They may have received a devastating medical diagnosis, so I am guiding them in their acceptance and the emotional roller coaster ride they are on. They may be struggling with addiction, so I companion them in their recovery. What these all have in common is the essential practice of being fully present and listening with the ears of the heart. It isn’t always easy, since in my ‘infinite wisdom,’ there are times when I am just delusional enough to think I have the answers for them, and they sometimes join me in that belief.  What I remind them is that I don’t go home with them and that their own wisdom comes from a place within them. That’s when I model that listening for them, by asking them to take a moment, get still and silent and ask a question, waiting for an answer. My own intuition works that way as well.

I was watching a TED Talk rendered by fellow Philadelphia area journalist, Ronnie Polaneczky, called The Art of Deliberate Listening. She begins by talking about a personal revelation that was prompted by a call from a grieving mother whose son had been murdered.  Ronnie had written a story about another mother and her child whose life was taken as well. The second mother had left a scathing voice mail message demanding to know why her child wasn’t worthy of a story, that had Ronnie reeling. She was able to gather her thoughts and return the call, preparing to be defensive, since she knew was an ethical writer who penned articles that got to the heart of the matter, regardless of the topic she covered. She knew it was literally impossible for her to write about every parent who faced the horrific experience of losing a child, especially to murder. So, she sat (not in person) with this woman whose face she knew she might never see, but whose need to mourn and rage was apparent. The mom just needed to be heard, her pain witnessed.  She calls it ‘deep listening,’ and adds “Magic happens when we suspend our right to be right.”

‘Suspend our right to be right.’ How often do we enter into a conversation with someone, intending to get the last word, be proven right and have our deeply held beliefs about anything, be validated? Pretty damn often in most interactions. Even in my aforementioned privileged listenership, I still need to be acutely mindful of when I am not practicing what I preach. The adage, ‘we don’t listen to understand. We listen to respond,’ is sadly accurate for most people.  How can we learn who this other person is, without opening our ears, minds and hearts? Plain and simple, we can’t. The best we can hope for is a stalemate and an agreement to disagree. Listening fully may still not bring us in lock step with each other, but it will certainly help us get closer. If we live in a state of wondering and curiosity about what makes the other person tick, especially if our beliefs and theirs are at odds with each other, we are better at understanding their mindset and values.

Active Listening is a modality that is considered a foundation for meaningful and successful communication and would fit into Psychology 101.

  • Comprehending – In the comprehension stage of listening, the receiver listens to what the speaker is saying without focusing on other topics or attempting to second guess what the other person might say.
  • Retaining – This step requires the listener to remember what the speaker has said so that the his or her complete message can be conveyed. Some people may choose to take notes if memory is likely to fail.
  • Responding – This calls for offering both verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker that indicates the listener is both hearing and understanding what the speaker has said.

When people are listened to:

  • They feel valued
  • They feel understood
  • They feel like what they have to say matters
  • They are more willing to share their feelings and not withhold
  • They speak more softly and are less likely to escalate emotionally
  • They feel a greater sense of intimacy and connection

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

 “You can’t fake listening. It shows.” – Raquel Welch

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