But even when we are paying attention to what we hear, are we really hearing? Are we listening? When someone is talking to us, how much of the time are we distracted, or formulating our response even as he is speaking?
When we truly listen, we put aside our own thoughts for a time-we "get out of the way". Our thoughts emerge and we notice them, but then we re-focus on what is being said to us. We don't allow ourselves to be swept away by our own stories.
When we do this, we begin to touch into a deeper understanding of the other people in our lives. For example, we may realize that someone's complaint is really a request for reassurance, or that words said in anger are an expression of an underlying pain. We open to the tremendous richness of other peoples' experience.
And what a gift this is to the other person. By listening in this way, we demonstrate genuine caring. It is what people need. This kind of caring often does more for another person than any advice we might give. Even a well-intentioned effort on our part to "make it better" can actually hinder a person's ability to grieve fully, or to find their own answer in the midst of their confusion.
The power of listening is well known by those who work with people in distress. Hospice workers and victims' advocates spend much of their time listening, listening, while their clients give voice to their pain and confusion. Being listened to, without judgment, is an important part of the client's journey toward healing from the wounds of despair. It has been said that you can "listen a soul into existence".
There's more. When we listen, we learn something. It not only serves the other person, it also broadens our own perspective and opens us to greater, more profound knowledge about our world. We begin to question our assumptions and recognize the fluid complexity of our fellow human beings. Some of what we hear is painful. But the pain will not go away if we refuse to hear it. Indeed, it is perhaps only in listening that pain can truly be healed.
In our society, with its pervasive noise and busy-ness, listening does not come easily. We get caught up in our lives, seldom slowing down to pay attention to the magic of the present moment by giving it all our attention through listening. It's especially difficult to listen to others when we are under stress, or in conflict. But conflict situations are times when listening can be especially helpful. When you really understand where someone else is coming from, it can alter your perspective on the conflict and make the situation more workable.
So, practice listening. When someone is telling you something, try to pause for just a moment before you respond. You could even try to hold your tongue during an awkward silence, and see what happens. Listening creates a space in which the other person might feel comfortable enough to open up a bit more, to reveal something that has been on her mind.
It's also true that silence can be used as a weapon against the other person, a way to hurt him. In this case, silence is a way to maintain a self-righteous position with no room for movement. Watch out for this one. It comes down to your intention. Are you using silence as a way to solidify the situation, or as a way to open it up? Is your silence icy, or is it warm?
If you are feeling angry and don't trust yourself to remain silent, or if you are too emotional to listen to the other person, it's better to leave than to stay silent. If you stay, your body language will give a clear indication of what's really going on for you and the other person will be sure to notice. In this kind of a situation, you could say, "I'm upset right now and I need to leave."
On the other hand, if you can manage to stay present and actually listen to what the other person is saying despite your internal reaction, there is much to gain. Used well, silence is powerful.