Generous Listening

When in our lives can we practice this more intentional form of listening, where we listen to understand the humanity in the other person’s words?

Over the course of a typical day, our interactions with others may range from the practical and routine to the profound and oftentimes challenging.

In our more challenging conversations we often attempt to exert greater attentional force — we attempt to be more aware, focused, present. In doing so, however, what we often end up doing is trying too hard, in a way.

Without realizing it, we often direct too much of our mental energy towards our interpretation of what is being said — we’re straining to understand what is being said through the lens of our own understanding, our past experience, what we think we already know to be true.

Instead of just simply 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.”
― Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen speaks about an uncomplicated but profound form of listening which she calls “generous listening”. It was born out of her work with patients dealing with pain and trauma, and I believe can be applied even more broadly in our lives.

It is an intentional form of listening where we listen to understand the humanity in the other person’s words. Listening with the question in mind of, What is important now? Listening simply to know what is true for this person.

I think so many of us forget or don’t realize that this form of listening can be an incredible act of service towards one another. In so many circumstances we are too quick to share how the other person’s words have reminded us of a story or a situation in our own lives.

And sharing our perspective may be well-intentioned. We may truly be looking to connect, to reach a shared understanding.

But often in doing this — sharing how the other person’s story relates to our experience — we can end up making a person feel more lonely. Subtly, this person’s issue or pain becomes a story about ourselves.

Remen says that we “connect through listening”. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than most well-intentioned words.

But how do we listen in this way? How do we achieve or create this kind of space of silence but at the same time a sense of support? Especially when in our heads, as we listen, there may be a powerful and endless train of thought saying things like, “Do I agree? Do I believe this? Do I even like it? Or, What is really wrong? Do I know how to fix it?”

Remen leaves us with more clues to consider:

“Many times when we help we do not really serve… Serving is also different from fixing. One of the pioneers of the Human Potential Movement, Abraham Maslow, said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Seeing yourself as a fixer may cause you to see brokenness everywhere, to sit in judgment of life itself. When we fix others, we may not see their hidden wholeness or trust the integrity of the life in them. When we serve, we see the unborn wholeness in others; we collaborate with it and strengthen it. Others may then be able to see their wholeness for themselves for the first time.”
― Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

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