I recently attended a workshop with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen whose books such as, “Kitchen Table Wisdom” have informed my work for over twenty years. I have participated in other workshops with Rachel and I am always moved by the experience. Her work has helped me deepen my listening skills. I think I am a good listener. But my experience in this workshop reminded me of the power of generous listening; listening deeply, without comment. I came away acutely aware of just how much language can sometimes get in the way of true connection; connection within ourselves and with another.
The workshop blended stories and insights shared by Rachel and others in the room, alternating with breakouts into groups or dyads. In each of the exercises we were asked to listen generously; not to comment or question. Just listen. Initially I experienced some dissatisfaction with the process. I am naturally curious and wanted to learn more about particular aspects of my partner’s story. I wanted to ask questions and share my own experience as a way of letting others know I understood.
It took me awhile to remember how deeply we can connect when we “just” listen; when we sit with others in their truth. To listen without even a need to understand is truly a gift to both the person telling the story and the person hearing it. Listening to understand is important, but there are some things that are beyond our understanding.
When we listen generously we give the gift of our presence. I felt a bighearted connection in giving that gift. I was free to allow the story to unfold without any direction from me. I felt fully engaged in the stories but no need to hold on to follow up questions. I felt connected to the story and the person in a way that transcended language. Words seemed to pale in comparison.
When I was the person speaking I felt grateful for the opportunity to drop into my own story. To tell the story my way, free from the need to use language that had meaning to the listener. Instead, I was free to hear my own voice, to discover my own meaning in the story.
To quote Dr. Remen, “When you listen generously to people they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time.” She calls this type of listening a “Holy Silence.” I think of it as sacred space; a space for something to emerge between two people that we somehow recognize, even if we can’t understand it.
I do not mean to in any way diminish skills such as inquiring, informing, reflecting, summarizing, paraphrasing, guiding etc. They are useful, important tools which help us connect with others. In a dental practice they are vital to the process of co-discovery which enables people to sort through competing values and move toward healthy choices. I simply want to remember that, at their best, those skills are limited by language; by our ability to interpret and articulate the meaning of what we hear. What is important to remember is that there are other ways to connect.
So don’t ignore the skills you have developed over time for connecting with people you care about. Just look for opportunities to try on generous listening: with your co-workers, your friends and family, and your patients. It is more of an inside way of being than an interactive tool. Experiment with it for brief periods of time.
- First, listen to yourself. Take a few breaths to free yourself from distractions and hear your own heartbeat.
- Next, begin to just notice when you find yourself wanting to interpret, categorize, synthesize, or drift away. Come back to the present and listen.
- Finally, drop into wonder, intuition, and a deep knowing that this unique person has something to share with you that invites a human to human connection and a profound sense of mutual trust.
Listen generously. “And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone.”
Thank you, Rachel Remen, for the reminder.