Wise Listening Leads to Conscious, Compassionate Connection

Wise Listening Leads to Conscious, Compassionate Connection

Your responses to last week’s e-quotes on Listening were the most overwhelmingly heartful of any offering so far. We all need to be listened to, deeply.

“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand. “
– Sue Patton Thoele

Especially in hard times getting harder, we need practical tools to help us expand our spirits. When I heard Paul Ekman tell his story recently of the effect of the Dalai Lama’s compassionate listening on his own intractable anger (see Stories to Learn From below) I knew I wanted to expand the inquiry into listening. May you find this month’s reflections and resources on Being Listened To, Contemplative Listening, Skillful Listening, Empathic Listening, Compassionate Listening, and Listening to Heal the Planet helpful to you and yours.



1. Being listened to

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that something deep inside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.”
– e.e. cummings

“Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people don’t know the difference.”
– David Augsburger

Being listened to, deeply, completely, is profoundly healing. It can open us to a new experience of our own essence, our own goodness, which we have forgotten or maybe never knew. Being listened to is not a luxury or a matter of luck. It is so fundamental to our well-being, it’s truly our birthright.

And we can tell when we’re not being listened to. The other person is distracted, pre-occupied, doing too many things at once. We feel downcast and bereft when there’s no one to hear our story, the little events, the brand new thoughts, that make up our days, that move our lives forward.

It is actually wise spiritual practice to find Wise Others who can listen to us, hear us, understand us, believe in us, see our True Nature when we can’t see or believe in it ourselves.

Ah, the comfort,
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person.
Having neither to weigh out thoughts
Nor words,
But pouring them all right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together;
Certain that a faithful hand
Will take them and sift them;
Keeping what is worth keeping and,
With the breath of kindness,
Blow the rest away.
– Anonymous

2. Contemplative listening:

“When we shift our attention toward listening, our whole world changes. Learning to listen is equal to learning to love. “
– Ruth Cox

Mindfulness meditation is a tool to practice the presence, openness, receptivity that is the ground of any listening. In the silence and receptivity of contemplative listening, tuning into our own felt experience, moment by moment, we can notice, tension, irritation, restlessness, or calm quiet, peace, or delight, joy, awe. Listening more deeply than the level of our breath, body sensations, feelings, and thoughts about ourselves, we can drop into a quiet space of no chatter, no agenda, no nagging doubts, no habits of perceiving or interpreting ourselves. We can, if we are quiet and focused enough, drop into a spacious stillness so calm and clear that we actually begin to sense the wholeness of our true being. When we can become fully grounded in that wholeness and anchor steadily in it, then can listen skillfully to another without losing ourselves, our center.

3. Skillful listening:

Skillful listening is the conscious, verbal level of listening and the better half of Wise Speech.

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Regardless of what we learned or didn’t learn about listening in our families growing up, we can choose now to master the basics of conscious speaking – engaged listening. We can develop fully the capacities of the left hemisphere of our brains – to make sense of the words and concepts coming at us from an other. That keep the channels of communication open between us and anyone we need to live, work and play with.

Non-violent communication developed by Marshal Rosenberg (see Books and Websites below) is one of the better known communication models used today for families, communities, governments. All models offer practical skills and tools to override our poor habits from the past. We learn to tell our kids to “use your words”, we make reflective “I” statements with our lovers rather than shaming “you” statements; we try to be curious and receptive with adversaries and hold off on tendencies to blame, criticize or judge.

Here are my top ten suggestions for skillful listening: (See Exercises to Practice below as well.)

1. Become present. Set aside rehearsing what you’re going to say in response to your speaker; simply receive what they are saying and let it register in your own mind before formulating your conscious response. (And if it’s not a good time for you to be present, too much on your own mind or you’re running late out the door, say so kindly and schedule another time to listen.)

2. Check to make sure you heard the speaker accurately before responding. “I heard you say” [whatever you actually heard; paraphrasing can begin to distort what was actually said]. “Is there more?” is a skillful way to slow things down and make room for the speaker to feel fully heard.

3. Be comfortable allowing difference and disagreement. Trust that there are reasons why what the speaker is saying makes sense to them, or makes sense given their history and experiences. Ask for clarification until you understand the speaker’s ideas from their point of view, even if you completely disagree.

4. Monitor your own reactions to whatever the speaker is saying, but bracket and contain them until it’s your turn to speak. It’s not to lose yourself or forget yourself; it’s to manage your self until there is room for what you need to say to be received.

5. This means knowing your own emotional triggers and emotional reactivity; taking responsibility to manage them consciously. Your emotions are important signals; we learn how to use them under Step 3, empathic listening. The more comfortable and familiar you are with your own emotional landscape, the more comfortable you will be with your speaker’s emotions, even when running hot and high. Then you can listen-understand-empathize without over-reacting yourself.

6. As you proceed, monitor how much you are listening compared to how much you are speaking. If it’s important for this particular conversation to be mutual, reciprocal, then make room for the other person to speak or ask for more time yourself to keep things balanced. And when you need to stop listening or need to take a turn, respectfully stop or ask to take a turn.

7. Be curious about what’s not being said; what’s being left out. Are there any taboo topics lingering in the shadows that need to be addressed? You can skillfully inquire when it’s your turn again to speak.

8. Keep good boundaries. You’re open and receptive, but not a victim or a doormat. You deserve to be respected as a listener, and can say no to someone’s venting if it’s not appropriate or good timing for you to be asked to listen.

9. Hold yourself in your own truth if necessary, separate from anything someone is saying about you, remembering that whatever they are saying is a reflection of them. Be willing to listen and take responsibility where merited, but don’t take things personally otherwise.

10. Notice any criticism, judgment, ridicule or contempt coming up in you in response to what you’re hearing. Set it aside; re-open to hearing and valuing what the other person is saying. Not easy, but essential.

“The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
– Richard Moss

4. Empathic listening:

“The first duty of love is to listen.”
– Paul Tillich

Empathy means feeling into what another person is feeling as they speak to us in the moment. We listen with our eyes, picking up all the unconscious, non-verbal cues of facial expressions, body language, gestures. We listen with our ears to the tone of voice and inflections. We listen with our bodies, resonating with what the other person is experiencing unconsciously in their body-brain as they speak.

Empathic listening is the gateway to opening the heart and connecting at the soul level with another. Albert Mehrabian reports in Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes: 55% of all emotional meaning is communicated through facial expressions, body language, gestures; another 38% is communicated by tone of voice and prosody. A mere 7% of emotional meaning is communicated by words.

Again, regardless of what we experienced or didn’t experience of empathy growing up in our families, we can choose now to master the basics of resonance, attunement and empathy. We can develop the capacities of the right hemisphere of our brains to feel into the nuances of embodied feelings and emotions that keep the channels of communication open between us and anyone we need to live with, work with, suffer with, or celebrate with.

Louis Cozolino, in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, identifies three key steps of empathy:

a. Resonance Our bodies are evolutionarily hard-wired to reverberate with the emotions and actions of people around us. Resonance is reflexive. We don’t have to go through any conscious process to resonate with others. It’s like when we reflexively yawn when we see someone else yawn. Or go “oh!” when baby goes “Oh!” Resonance is the basis of emotional contagion – how anger can sweep through a soccer crowd or how anxiety gets passed from parent to child. We pick up valuable clues to what someone is feeling when we pay attention to what’s resonating in our bodies and emotions as we listen.

b. Attunement: is feeling our way into the emotional meaning of what the speaker is saying by feeling what’s happening in our emotions as we listen o them. As Dan Goleman notes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, We can’t not pick up what’s happening inside another if we’re listening to what’s happening inside ourselves. “As I hear you say [whatever] I notice a feeling of [whatever] is coming up in me. Anything like that happening for you?”

c. Empathy: Resonance (unconscious, pre-verbal in-sync-ness) and attunement (consciously feeling what another is feeling from the inside out, whether we have words for it or not) and our best conscious, verbal hypothesis about the meaning of what we’re hearing from the other person equals empathy. Our feelings help us know what another is meaning to convey of their feelings. Empathy maintains good boundaries; we can imagine and share in the inner world of another even as we keep our own inner world intact.

Empathic listening is a skill that is matured with practice. And is the beginning of everything miraculous in true listening. (See exercises to practice below)

“The transformation into a skilled listener is an emotionally and spiritually challenging endeavor. Many feelings and new realizations arise as we attempt to learn about others and ourselves. It is a challenge well worth turning toward. The ongoing practice of listening transforms not only the speaker with it healing attention and compassionate focus, but it transforms the listener as well. With practice listeners grow bigger hearts, have more compassion, wisdom and solutions for successfully navigating life.”
– Mark Brady and Jennifer Leigh

5. Compassionate listening

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.
– Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

Compassionate listening happens in moments of deep loss, in realizations of disturbing truths we don’t want to hear, in times of disorienting change and transition. Compassionate listening requires us to set aside everything that is not simply presence and openness. We listen to the whole being of an other with our whole being.

Frank Ostaseski, founder-director of Zen Hospice Project teaches this kind of compassionate listening as part of training in compassionate caregiving. One story has stayed with me from that training.

Joe, a hospice volunteer, visited Nathan, dying of complications from AIDS, every Friday afternoon. One particular afternoon, Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law were already visiting; two friends from work were in the room as well. The room was full of laughter and chatter. Joe felt a bit superfluous, but decided to take a seat at the foot of the bed and simply hold Nathan’s feet. Joe silently held Nathan’s feet for about 15 minutes, then quietly left. Nathan later told Joe that his silent presence and his compassionate touch were the most healing connection he had experienced all week.

Jack Kornfield, author of The Wise Heart and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, refers to such compassionate listening as a meditation for two. We simply set aside all “fixing”, advice giving, problem solving, and show up for what is, in the moment.

I once came to have breakfast with a friend, but she had had a disturbing dream the night before and wanted to be in silence. So we ate breakfast together in silence, holding hands so that I ate with my right had and she ate with her left. After 20 minutes or so, she smiled and nodded her head. She was feeling settled enough within to go on about her day.

It’s the being with, and caring. That’s all.

6. Listening to heal the planet

Daniel Barenboim, world famous Israeli pianist-conductor, and Palestinian-born Edward Said, professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University for 40 years, collaborated on a unique way to help Arabs and Jews in the Middle East listen to each other and make a dent in the endless political and religious tensions of the region.

In 1999, they co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for talented youth. For six years, young musicians from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria came together for six weeks in a summer “music and reconciliation camp,” first in Germany, then in Spain. The students performed together, lived together, heard seminars together. They listened to each other talk about the social-political-religious tensions they were subject to year round. Their fathers had fought against each other in war after war, terrorist attack after attack; they listened to each other’s stories, points of view, fears, prejudices, hopes and dreams. The project culminated in 2005 in an unprecedented concert in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and a stunning, award-winning documentary by Paul Smaczny called “Knowledge is the Beginning.”

“Knowledge is the Beginning” documents one powerful example of the listening that is essential to healing the planet.


“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

* * * * *

“To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation.”
– Francois de la Rouchefoucauld

* * * * *

“Listening grows our brains and feeds our hearts. Being listened to enlivens us and provides opportunities to explore what we think, how we feel, what we want, who we are, and who we’re becoming.”
– Mark Brady and Jennifer Leigh

* * * * *

Everybody needs a good listening to.
(refrigerator magnet given to me by a client)

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. It is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.
– Brenda Ueland


Paul Ekman, the noted researcher and author of 15 books on emotions, had struggled himself with intractable anger and rages, three or four “regrettable” episodes a week, by his own count, until he met the Dalai Lama in the year 2000. Paul was part of a Mind-Life Institute conference of Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners meeting in Dharamsala, India to explore different perspectives on “destructive emotions.” Paul has told the story of his eight-minute life-changing experience with the Dalai Lama many times; I heard it two weeks ago when he spoke at the Awakening Joy course.

On the third day of the conference, observers were invited to ask their own questions of the Dalai Lama. Paul’s 20 year old daughter Eve asked, “Why do we get the angriest at the people we love the most?” The Dalai Lama answered Eve’s question (about expectations and the destructive compassion of an over-protective parent) while he simply held the hand of Paul sitting on the other side of him. No words, just the compassionate touch of someone listening compassionately to another person’s suffering. Paul reported his whole body filled with a radiant warmth as he sat there absorbing the caring of the man many believe to be the embodiment of compassion in this world. Paul later reported that he did not have another “regrettable” episode, not one, for the next seven months. Not even an impulse of anger. As time has gone on, the impulse sometimes re-occurs, but Paul feels no need to act on it. Gone. Done. Personal reactivity changed forever.

Moments of compassionate listening, that can touch our being at such a deep level, that we re-experience our own inherent goodness, our innate True Nature, can heal the deepest suffering. Forever.


1. Being listened to:

Allow yourself to sit quietly, go inside, breathe deeply, then remember a moment where you felt deeply listened to by someone; you felt seen, heard, understood, accepted, even embraced. It doesn’t matter who it is; it only matters that you experienced being listened to. Let yourself have that feeling for a moment. Then take a moment to reflect: when this moment of being listened to happened, did it change you or your life in any way? How so?

Give yourself permission to seek moments of being deeply listened to again and again and again. Seek them; savor them; let them nourish and sustain you. It’s your birthright.

2. Contemplative listening

This is a variation of a meditation practice done often at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. On retreat, when people are meditating deeply in silence, a teacher will ring a bell. The meditators notice the sound of the bell arising from the silence, and falling away again into the silence. The teacher will ring a second bell; a different sound arises and falls away. The teacher rings a third bell, a fourth, fifth, sixth. The meditators focus on the ongoing awareness that holds the arising and falling away of sound.

Just as the ongoing awareness can hold the arising and falling away of any thought or doubt or fear or anger; even complex belief systems and lifelong “truths”. The awareness the meditator cultivates on retreat can hold any experience as it arises and falls away.

Once back in the “real” world, we can remain aware of the awareness itself holding any worry, regret, disappointment arising in our mindstream. We can listen, we can pay attention, we can respond wisely, we can take care of business. And remain steady in the deep knowing of who we truly are and what life is truly about.

3. Skillful listening

To get a feel for how we are impacted by the words of another, try this simple exercise from Dan Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being:

Ask a friend or partner to say No! to you at least five times, varying the
inflection and intensity of the word. Notice your reaction as you receive the energy of their verbal and non-verbal communication. Then have them say Yes! to you at least five times, again varying the inflection and intensity of the word. Notice any differences in your reception of the yes versus the no. Reflect on how you might be impacting people listening to you in the same way.

4. Empathic listening

The intention to resonate, attune, and empathize is far more important than any formula of “how to.” But here are some phrases that illustrate how to convey empathy in ways that help the speaker feel deeply listened to.

* As I hear your talk about your brother, I notice something starts to come up in me, right here, in my chest. Can I check that out with you? I’m feeling…an ache, maybe some sadness, a loneliness. Are you feeling anything like that right now?

* I notice your energy is different in your body now…more relaxed? Lighter? What’s your sense now?

* Any time we begin to get near the emotions around your father leaving, you seem to change the subject. Is there something difficult about feeling those feelings and sharing them with me?

* It feels so good to laugh about all this, doesn’t it? What a load off.

* I’m wondering if hearing about your John’s getting laid off got your worried about you maybe losing your job, too? Am I picking that up?

5. Compassionate listening

Do this exercise with a partner. Have them lie down comfortably on a bed or on the floor, and gently close their eyes. Sit near them; take one of their hands in yours. Place your other hand on their forehead. Sit silently with them for two minutes. Synchronize your breathing with theirs. Notice the connection this compassionate listening affords.

Then have your partner similarly hold your hand and place their hand on your forehead as you lie down comfortably; eyes closed. Notice your experience being “listened” to in this deeply compassionate way.


The Little Book of Listening Skills: 52 Essential Practices for Profoundly Loving Yourself and Other People by Mark Brady and Jennifer Austin Leigh, Paideia Press, 2005.

The 52 skills taught in this book, one per page, one for every week of the year, offer an accelerated course in skillful listening. One that I had never heard of before until I mentioned it to several colleagues who had heard of it: When someone is sending you a lot of negative energy, don’t sit there and take it; stand up, move around, walk back and forth or alongside, but protect yourself from the negative energy by getting out of its way. (I tried it; it helped!)

Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshal Rosenberg. Puddle Dancer Press, 2003.

Highly recommended by professionals from every walk of life. Very practical and effective tools for building a vocabulary for feelings, making requests consciously, sustaining empathy, shifting have-to to choose-to, resolving conflicts, expressing appreciation, etc. An excellent foundation for getting needs met on both sides of the table.

Listening: The Forgotten Skills (A Self-Teaching Guide) by Madelyn Burley-Allen, John Wiley and Son, 1995.

Very concrete, step by step guide to the basics of good listening. Easy to use with “self-tests” as you go along.