In this 3-part series, LIZ KINGSNORTH introduces the value of effective communication, the basic principles of Heartful Communication, and how it can guide our understanding of our personal feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of others, ultimately leading to a more consistent state of harmony. In part 3, Liz shares how listening can be a powerful and empathetic tool of communication.
HEARTFUL COMMUNICATION – PART 3
We can listen in a range of ways. We can listen in attentive silence, offering our alert presence, communicating acceptance, respect or care, without words. Or we might need to listen for factual information – for example in a work meeting – and then we can check back with the speaker if what we have picked up is accurate.
Perspective taking is another way to listen. Paying attention and acknowledging someone’s perspective or opinion, particularly when it is very different from our own, requires us to be centered and to let go of any urge to persuade them they are wrong! If our intention is connection not correction, we first listen for their way of seeing things and then we may reflect back to them our understanding of their perspective. “So, your view is that vaccination should be compulsory for everyone, is that right?” Remember, you don’t need to agree with their perspective, but when someone feels accurately heard, not immediately argued with, not judged, they are much more likely to be open to hearing your perspective also.
Another level is to listen for how a person is feeling, and we can offer back what we sense. For example, someone might say, “My husband is never at home. He’s married to his job!” Even though feelings are not explicitly named here, we can sense that this person is in pain about her situation, that she has feelings of frustration and anger, perhaps loneliness, or even despair. If we gently respond to this outburst by asking if she is feeling a bit hopeless and alone, she may experience relief from being heard; here is someone really trying to understand her experience.
What matters is that we don’t fall into the habit of immediately trying to fix things or make light of the situation. Habitual responses might be:
To try to console, for example, “Never mind, at least he does come home!”
To give immediate advice, for example, “Why don’t you complain to his boss?”
Very commonly, to tell our own similar story, for example, “Oh, my husband’s just the same,” and off we go with our own story, often with a sort of one-upmanship, like our situation is even more horrible than theirs!
I call these kinds of responses “circuit breakers,” because they can so quickly break the flow of connection and cut across the person’s need to express themselves. We jump in and reply with what comes instantly into our mind. Stephen Covey wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It’s not that we should eliminate these responses altogether, as at times they may be what someone wants, but often not as a first reaction. It can be an issue of timing, being sensitive to their need to vent without interruption.
Take a moment now and reflect on the ways you commonly respond: “Do I tend to immediately give advice, for example? Or perhaps start telling my own experience?”
You might also reflect on how you feel when someone tries to immediately fix things, when you want to simply share something and be heard?
What we are often yearning for from our listener is empathy, that they are willing to imagine our world, to gently step into our unique experience and affirm it. Heartful Communication teaches us to listen so carefully that we can hear or sense what someone may be longing for, as well as their feelings, even when they don’t articulate them clearly. So, an empathic response to, “My husband is never at home. He’s married to his job!” might sound like, “I guess you’re feeling really fed up and alone, and you would love to have more quality time together with your husband.” We tune into her longing for companionship, even though it is being expressed indirectly as an exasperated complaint.
When people receive empathy in this way, they often feel relief, an easing of pressure. Their need to be heard and understood is met. It’s nourishing. It’s one of the most transformative aspects of communication that we can develop.
Being able to stay calm and listen under pressure is more challenging. Yet, if we can do it, if we can empathize with someone who is angry with us, hostility can change to harmony in a remarkably quick time. I remember one time when I was living in a house with no access to the backyard except through my neighbor’s garden. I was doing major renovation work and my neighbor had agreed to allow the workmen to come through his garden with their heavy loads to access my yard.
Learning new habits of listening
instead of defending ourselves.
Becoming aware when we are triggered
and then being able to respond gently.
These things can liberate us
from the prison of judgment
We were a couple of weeks into the project with a lot more to be done, when one morning he bolted the gate between our gardens and piled up furniture behind it. Clearly, he had decided to put a stop to the work. If the gate stayed locked, that would be the end of my garden renovation. I needed to go and listen to this man.
I began quietly, using neutral observation: “Hello John, I see the gate is locked today.” He immediately exploded, shouting, “You think you can just go on like this every day with these idiots invading my garden like it’s a public road!”
I took a deep breath and listened for his feelings and what his needs were in this moment, and then I replied, “Are you really angry because you want your privacy respected”? “Yes!” he roared, “I don’t know when this damned work is going to be over. I’ve had enough!”
Although I was alarmed, I remembered that he was angry because he had valid unmet needs, so I responded, “Right, it’s important that you know what the timeframe is for completing.” “Of course!” he said. “And see that shed? That’s my home office with all my files and my computer inside!” I replied, “Oh wow, I can see why you’re worried about security and want to be sure your stuff is safe.”
Other things were upsetting him: “And see those plants – that is salad! Your buffalos are trampling over everything!” “I’m really sorry,” I said. “It matters that they take care and keep to the path.”
There were a couple more of these interchanges with him expressing what he was angry about and me listening and doing my best to reflect back to him my understanding of his feelings and needs. I could see him becoming calmer.
Then suddenly, to my surprise, he said, “Well, all right, I can see you have to get the work done. I’ll open the gate when they come!”
I was taken aback at how fast things had shifted. I hadn’t protested or defended my situation. The whole thing took about ten minutes. I quickly thanked him and assured him we would talk with the workmen about his concerns. The project was completed amicably. This is the power of focused, empathic listening that’s possible even under pressure.
Learning new habits of listening instead of defending ourselves. Becoming aware when we are triggered and then being able to respond gently. These things can liberate us from the prison of judgment and reactivity. As Viktor Frankl suggests, “There is a space between the stimulus and the response. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I have found that this can be achieved more easily when we have a practice of meditation that helps us create such spaces, bringing increasing calmness and balance inside. This is a journey where we endeavor to transcend our conditioning and re weave a web of generous, warm relatedness, where the well-being of each one, and all of us together, matters more than pursuing our individual wellbeing. Here we go beyond our separate identities toward a shared sense of oneness, as an entire human family, in which each one flourishes and can contribute to the well-being of all.
Liz has been a Heartfulness trainer since 1992, and an internationally certified Nonviolent Communication trainer for 16 years. In Scotland, she integrates NVC into her work as an organisational consultant, leadership coach, trainer and counselor. In India, she spent ten years with the Omega School in Chennai, and is now training trainers in Heartful Communication... Read more