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Rev. Ann C. Fox
(508) 992-7081

The Unitarian Universalist Society
of Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Deep Listening
Rev. Ann C. Fox

Note: Please read the reading at the end first.

          Were you listened to a child? Are you listened to as an adult? Do you feel listened to in your relationships? In a Fortune cookie, I read, "God gave us two ears and one mouth, so She must have meant for us to do twice as much listening as talking!"

          Personal development guru Stephen Covey tells us, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They are either speaking or preparing to speak."

          Our lives and our relationships could be greatly improved and more rewarding if we experienced more listening. Deep listening, listening with the entire focus of our minds is a central teaching of the Buddha from the Lotus Sutra. The Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh, says that a great deal of unhappiness is caused in the world because people do not feel listened to. He tells the story of how during the Vietnam War his monks would not take sides. Instead, they helped everyone who needed it. They focused their efforts on the poor people in the countryside by sending monks and young social workers who wanted to help to teach the people about good health, economic, and educational practices. When peasants and refugees asked, How much does the government pay you?" the workers replied, "I receive no pay. I am sent by the Buddhist Temple to help and to be with you and to listen to you in your suffering." Most of what the Temple devotees did was listen to the people.

          This unusual behavior of being with and listening to ordinary people caused both the Viet Cong and the Americans to be highly suspicious of the monks. However, when the war ended, Thich Nhat Hanh was called to participate in the Paris peace talks. The presence of the little Vietnamese monk must have lent a conciliatory quality to these talks.

          In 1996, we witnessed in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being established so that investigations of abuses could be made and people could tell their stories. I thought it was an astonishingly advanced way to attempt to bring about healing in a country so torn apart by racial violence. This didn't solve all this country's problems, of course, but it did help many people, both victims and perpetrators, transform their lives. It is not only confession that is good for the soul, it is being heard.

          Most of us have to listen and respond to many people every day. Are we really listening to them or are we just hearing. ".Hearing is a physiological phenomenon while listening is a psychological state. To listen deeply is to perceive beyond mere words and gestures. Without analyzing, we sense the underlying feelings and meanings; we understand the subtler level of communication. When we are listening deeply, we are affected and touched by the other person. And for the moment we are changed." (Bailey) This is heart to heart communication where our judgment and personal thoughts do not intrude. It is as if we create an empty space within us to fully experience the person who speaks. And it is as if we stand in the other person's shoes. This sounds easy to do but it is not.

          Philosopher David Bohm said, "When you listen to somebody else, whether you like it or not, what they say becomes part of you." I wonder whether we don't listen to others deeply because it is a bit threatening to us. If we listen deeply, we would have to be open to be changed. Therapists called this listening active listening or empathic listening.

          Interestingly, agreement is not necessarily the important ingredient in our listening encounters. When a person has been deeply heard, both listener and speaker are likely to be open to an opposing view. This is how we can have dialog and not an argument. A diverse people, like ourselves, would have to listen deeply to one another, otherwise, we would be in conflict all the time.

          There are some steps we can take to help us cultivate deep listening:

          1. The first step in good listening is to focus. Many things can disrupt our ability to focus. The first is stress, which makes our thinking chaotic. The second is the Me Syndrome, when we pay attention only to ourselves and what we want and not to the other person. A third barrier to focus is brain speed. Most of us think four times faster than we speak. This gives us the option of hearing and planning our response. But we must consciously choose to not do this and instead use this time to focus on the other person. (Swets, p. 42)

          2. The second step in deep listening is to be receptive with our body language such as facing the speaker, maintaining appropriate eye contact, leaning forward, nodding occasionally, and smiling.

          3. The third step is noticing the facts and thoughts but especially the feelings conveyed through the words, the body language and tone of voice of the speaker. Feelings are often the most difficult for a listener to bear. It might be wise to take a short break to process what we are observing. The important thing is to listen to a person without judgment of our own. We cannot be judging a person's looks or clothing if we're truly listening to them.

          4. Finally, we should know when to keep silent. We do not always have to respond in words to what another is saying. When a person is speaking of a problem, he or she very likely just wants to be heard by you and not necessarily wants you to solve the problem. A person very often solves a problem in the talking out loud and being heard. (Swets, 41-49) In the reading this morning, we heard emphatically that all that was required was to listen.

          Recently, I attended a gathering of clergy and people of Faith at the Friends MeetingHouse in Westport. We gathered to hear a young, dynamic professor, Brian Williams, from UMass talk to us about the situation in Iraq and about the proposed preemptive strike against that country. (By the way, this professor will be at this church on Friday, October 25th at 7pm at a public Forum organized by our Men's Fellowship. I hope you'll come.)

          At our gathering, we were to ask questions and discern a greater understanding of the situation from this encounter. We began with a prayer followed by silence. The format of the meeting was to be conducted in the Quaker tradition. The Professor spoke for 15 minutes. We were to reflect silently for a few minutes on what he had said. The moderator then called for a question. Someone got up, asked a question, then we were silent for one minute as we reflected on the question. The Professor responded and then we reflected on his response. This is how the evening went on. Some people who got up to speak first waited a few seconds before speaking. I suspect these were Quakers. (How about that, I thought, centering yourself before you speak!) At first, the format felt odd. But I began to see that this format encouraged deep listening, thoughtful response, and was certainly respectful of each speaker. I heard later that one of our members who was there found the format frustrating!

          I don't say we should adopt this way of running our meetings, but it certainly illustrates to me how the quality of an exchange can be greatly enhanced by listening deeply.

          These steps of focusing with a quiet mind, being receptive to body language, noticing not just facts but also feelings without judgment, and knowing when to keep silent when only listening is needed will help us to become listeners par excellence.

          We can practice deep listening with the people in our home, at work, and with everyone with whom we come into contact. As Unitarian Universalists who are always wanting to improve our world, our First Principle calls us to "honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person" by truly listening and this will certainly lead us to practice the second Principle, "compassion in human relations". The world can only be changed when people wake up to engage changing the way in which we interact with one another. So let us wake up to something as basic as deep listening.

          Let us not be afraid to be changed by listening deeply to another person. And let us listen more each day.


The following have informed and inspired this sermon:

Shafir, Rebecca Z. The Zen of Listening, Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, 2000

Swets, Paul E. The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen, New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Fourth Precept: Deep Listening and Loving Speech" (based on the Lotus Sutra).

Bailey, Joseph. "Deep Listening: The Prerequisite to Presence," 1/24/2001.

Reading: "Listen"

          When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice, you have not done what I asked.

          When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn't feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.

          When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

          Listen! All I asked was that you listen. Not talk or do -just hear me and I can do for myself; I'm not helpless-maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

          When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.

          But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I quit trying to convince you and can get about the business of understanding what's behind this irrational feeling. And when that's clear, the answers are obvious and I don't need advice. Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what's behind them.

          Perhaps that's why prayer works, sometimes, for some people, because God is mute, and she doesn't give advice or try to fix things. She just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

          So please listen and just hear me, and, if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn and I'll listen to you.


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