Compassionate Listening

I’ve been diving into trying to learn more about Compassionate Listening and came across a Christian monk giving a speech to deacons, priests, and others about it.

In his speech, he describes how he views someone sharing their deep-seated feelings that I thought was so beautiful and gave a good way to look at listening to someone with compassion.

“Humble, kind, patient—these are qualities of good listening. The word for patience in Greek really means it’s closer with long suffering, slow to anger. It has this sense of holding ourselves back, not lunging in, not speaking too quickly, but holding ourselves back and so giving someone room to speak, giving someone a space that they can speak into.

Humble, kind, gentle. That we listen in a way that someone is not afraid of us, because often the things that we express are so tender, so fragile, so sensitive that any rough movement, any harsh word, any resistance from us can cause a lot of pain in that space. Our listening has to be very, very gentle.

We can think of really receiving someone’s heart, it’s like heart surgery. Now, I’ve never held someone’s heart in my hands, but I’ve talked to doctors and nurses who have and what it’s actually like to compress a heart, to cause the heart to beat, to hold someone’s heart in our hands.

It’s really what we’re doing when we invite people to speak from the deepest places, to share the deepest wounds, to share the deepest hopes and joys, to really share things that they’ve never expressed to anyone.

We hold their hearts in our hands and the slightest movements can do a lot of damage when we have that exposed heart. There’s a reason that God normally hides it behind a rib cage. But when we hold that heart in our hands, we have to be so gentle. Small movements can do a lot of damage, but small movements can cause or lead to great healing.

And again, that’s one of the beautiful things that can happen in Unbound [a Christian program of pastoral listening] is this someone opens their hearts and we can really receive that and help them to speak truth into it, help them to rearrange some of those thought patterns…” (Frater Boniface Hicks, OSB, 2019)

Something I’ve been struggling with is putting aside my own thoughts, feelings, and desires when listening to someone speak something deeply personal in a vulnerable way. I’ve either gotten my own thoughts jumping into my head (“But I thought it was different than that” or “I need to defend myself from what they are saying”) or I haven’t really focused on them and their deep vulnerability they are attempting to do.

Imagining that the person I’m listening to is actually opening their heart and asking me to gently hold their heart in my hands brings an entirely different way of looking at compassionate listening.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls this deep listening—listening that can relieve the suffering of the other person. He views that such compassionate listening has only one purpose: to help the speaker empty their heart, and therefore suffer less.

I’ve seen a couple or a few people in YouTube videos mention that when you feel someone else’s emotions arise when they are sharing or when you feel your own emotions rising up in response to what someone says, place your hand on your own heart to focus yourself on how your heart receives the emotions. If it’s someone else’s negative emotions that have come up in listening to them, it will help you connect your heart with their emotions. If it is your own emotions that are feeling judged or in some way upset at what you’ve heard them say, it will help you get in touch with both your own feelings (before speaking and saying something that can mess up the compassionate listening) and what they themselves have experienced.

Just some thoughts that I imagined might help some people who might be wanting to improve how they listen or are struggling to be even a decent listener.

(Image from Pixabay)

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