The rapidly evolving use of artificial intelligence, smart devices, and electronic virtual assistants has made connected technological ‘listening’ a highly efficient and omni-present component of our daily lives. In fact, privacy protection advocates have increasingly argued that things have now gone too far. Our machines are literally eavesdropping on us. But, at such a pivotal time in our world today, human beings seem to actually ‘listen’ less than ever before. We receive in bytes. In characters. In pictures. In bits. Sometimes just a little bit, actually. Social media, TV, our phones, the radio, and the Internet all talk at us. We talk back in the same manner. But are we really listening? If not, it comes at a significant human cost. For we cannot be spiritually ‘connected’ with each other unless we’re first interacting together at deeper levels. And human connection begins with Listening. This, in turn, starts with each of us individually.
For the sake of an example, let’s say that I’m a co-worker, a friend, or a family member of another person. I greet them one morning asking, “How are you doing?” I may well expect the usual response, “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” That might be as deep as they or I wish to go today anyway. But, on this occasion, they don’t say, “I’m fine”. Instead, they stop for a moment and answer, “Not so good. Things are pretty bad, to be honest.” Maybe they briefly complain about something or someone. Or lament about how they’ve just been treated a few minutes ago. In any event, they appear to be really hurting in this moment. My response might be, “Wow. Sorry to hear that. I hope it gets better for you.” And with that, our conversation is done. While this interaction has been polite and respectful, it’s not true listening. Instead, I’ve undertaken ‘fly-by’ listening– superficially hearing their content. And it’s certainly not going any further with this approach.
More holistic listening on my part might sound something like this in response to their expressed plight. I could say, “I’m really sorry to hear this. I have some time now or later today. And I’d be happy to listen further if it’s helpful to you.” My new response is at least a start in the right direction. It’s so because I’ve now affirmed their importance as a person. I’ve signaled to them that I’m fully open to listening to the content of their story at a deeper level. This empowers them to share their story in more detail if they want to. In the process, I’ve become more connected with them if they choose to share. I actually join them in that story. I enter into it for a while with them.
But what if I were to go deeper, as appropriate and respectful, in my listening? I could do so by reflecting back their feelings. For they’re not just telling me a story. They may also want someone to join them in their feelings. Feelings like their being mad, sad, glad, afraid, overwhelmed, or anxious. I listen to their feelings when I verbally acknowledge what I perceive. I might say, “You sound angry.” “I sense some real frustration on your part.” “This seems to be upsetting you a lot.” “You’re pretty mad about this, aren’t you?” When I listen for and reflect back their feelings, I might get these feelings wrong. Using phrases like “I seem to sense” or “Am I reading you correctly?” can help in this regard. And if I’m not reading their feelings correctly, I can let them know that it’s OK to clarify. In any event, when I reflect back their feelings, I’m conveying that what’s beneath the content of their story truly matters. That I care about them as a person, not simply about their story.
Now, what if I challenged myself, as appropriate, to listen yet even more deeply? In doing so, I’d be attentive to their affect, as I perceive it— then reflect it back, once again, in respectful, mindful ways. It might sound something like this from me, “You sound really mad. And I can see the pensiveness and tightness on your face.” “You’re literally shaking.” “Tell me more about your tears if you want to share that.” Their affect is manifesting their feelings beneath. Both feelings and affect are unspoken. These feelings and affects aren’t being expressed in words. But they matter greatly. When I acknowledge the person’s affect, I effectively confirm that I’m more fully present with them in this moment. My reflections also invite further dialogue between us as they deem helpful. I’m now joining them more completely in real empathy. As such, there’s a far greater sense of mutual and meaningful engagement.
When I respectfully listen in this deeper way to another’s content, feelings, and affect, I open the most important possibility: They may find it helpful (based on circumstances and mutual trust) to express what’s really underneath it all. Their anger, tears, and pensiveness may, in the end, have relatively little to do with the ‘presenting’ issue that they raised today. Their opening story may simply be the tip of the iceberg above the surface. What resides beneath it is the deeper, heart-felt need. The need that has been verbalized today only because of my initially listening more deeply in true human, spiritual engagement. In so doing, my co-worker, friend, or family member may wish to share that today is the fifth anniversary of a loved-one’s death. Or the birthday of an estranged, long-time former friend. Or that their experience today reminds them of being pushed away or disrespected by others in the past as a child or young adult. Or that they just got some extremely difficult medical news a week ago. Perhaps these are the things really tugging at their heart after all. Not the thing that brought on their initial response to my greeting today.
Because I listened to another person at a deeper, thoughtful level, they just might have brought their unconscious thoughts into their conscious mind a little more fully today. This is the beginning of addressing what matters most. And I was present to truly ‘hear’ them. To authentically and empathetically ‘accompany’ them for a moment by more holistic listening. Not to ‘pry’ or push my way into their private life, because that’s a disrespectful and inappropriate boundary violation. Nor to satisfy my own selfish curiosity about them by asking lots of questions, because I shouldn’t. Nor to advise or try to fix or solve their problem. Because I can’t. And not to get in over-my-head or beyond my expertise. Because that’s patently unhelpful. But my deep, multi-layered listening did affirm them. It signaled to them that I simply care. That they matter as a person. In the end, I’ll probably never know the actual extent of any real, positive difference that I made in their life today. But I may just have… Deeply and in the Spirit of Peace.