I’ve been researching, teaching and practicing listening skills for more than two decades now. In that time, during which I’ve published four books on listening, three things have become abundantly clear. First, most people are surprised to learn how profoundly different simple hearing and deeply listening really are … and how poorly most  of us perform the latter. Next, aspiring clinicians and counselors are equally surprised to discover just how challenging  listening skillfully actually is – it requires us to pay close attention to ourselves and others on many levels, similar to the way the U.S. First Lady and President-elect do.  And finally, while people generally understand that direct benefits result from being listened to – from being able to give honest, authentic voice to our experiences to a significant other – they are often genuinely surprised to discover that even greater benefits actually accrue to the listener themselves!  So, it’s particularly encouraging that the day after Thanksgiving has been declared  A National Day of Listening.


The Einstein of the Ear

Hearing is the first sense to come online and the last of our senses to leave. This isn’t an accident, it turns out. Alfred Tomatis was a controversial medical researcher known familiarly among the French as “the Einstein of the Ear.” Tomatis postulated that hearing first becomes listening for a five week old fetus as it learns to discriminate between the many sounds it hears in utero – heartbeat, digestion, breathing, etc. Eventually, it begins to pay special attention to the intermittently reinforcing sounds of mother’s voice. This voice has been confirmed to drive early brain development and will have special healing (or disruptive) properties for a child across the lifespan. How many of us still bristle at our mother’s disapproval? Interestingly, recent research by Danish bio-physicist Thomas Heimburg seems to confirm that it is the energy of sound propagation that apparently underlies neural transmission and development.

The Enemy of Compassion

I started a career as a volunteer grief counselor as a pretty poor listener. What made me less than skillful was something pretty basic – anxiety. And anxiety, it turns out, is a product of our neurology. Anxiety is what we feel most often in response to threat, and strangers – especially strangers who are dying of cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or who are grieving a child who has died from leukemia or been killed in a traffic accident. These people all pose a threat to a greenhorn grief counselor. But fortunately there’s an antidote to anxiety: repetition and familiarity. Knowing this, Kara, the Palo Alto grief counseling agency where I volunteered for many years, kept me working with clients until finally, after about six months, my anxiety lessened and the clients began to stick.

ear-cuff-spiroWhat changed over those six months? First of all, I was part of a support group of experienced grief counselors who met together weekly to discuss clients and we had permission to tell the truth about our challenges. Rather than the regular condemnation I delivered to myself, this support group was compassionate and understanding – they’d all been beginners at one time themselves.

Next, was a requirement to develop some practices to help calm myself down. Exercising before and after spending time with a client helped. So did doing 7-11 breathing – an in-breath to a count of seven and out to a count of eleven. Smart Moves developed by biologist Carla Hannaford, also helped. These are a series of movements that cross the mid-line of the body. While I know of only anecdotal accounts, this cross-body movement is believed to help brain neurons fire across brain hemispheres, helping with what Dr. Bonnie Badenoch identifies as the Nine Pathways of Neural Integration. An integrated brain appears to be much better able to manage anxiety.

Teach What you Most Want to Learn

Another thing I did to help improve my listening, was to take the advice of Jim Fadiman, one of my graduate school professors. Jim advised that if you really want to learn something well, teach it. And so I did. Through the local University Extension program I designed and offered a course entitled “Deep Listening.” And people actually paid good money and faithfully showed up for it. We mostly explored all the ways they were poor listeners, and I began to even more fully appreciate just how challenging this craft really was. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who struggled.

I found and presented a number of interesting research studies on listening to these classes. One was done by Carolyn Schwartz and Rabbi Meir Sendor. Patients with multiple sclerosis were split into two groups. Members of one group were the designated listeners, the others the designated speakers. They were given pre- and post-tests designed to measure “response shift” – changes in internal standards, values, and the definition of life quality. The patients who were listened to improved significantly, but surprisingly, it turned out that the patients who did the listening improved even more! This dovetails well with Stephen Post’s empirical research on altruism and health, by the way.

american-willing-to-listen3I also introduced the students to Fran Peavey, a San Francisco-based community organizer. Fran developed a series of facilitative questions that she identifies as strategic, change-drivers. They were formed out of her “field research” in foreign lands where she would simply stand on a street corner with a big cardboard sign that read: “American, willing to listen.” As Yogi Berra might say, “You can hear a lot by listening!”

Another interesting account is provided by Colorado psychologist and former ISSSEM board president, Christine Hibbard who found that the local healer in a community of Māori in New Zealand had a 98% cure rate. When someone was sick, he simply gathered the community together, put the sick person in the center and asked them one question over and over: “What is it you’re not saying?” This reminds me of Saying Number 70 in the Gnostic Gospels: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  

Finally, a prospective study by Stephanie Brown at the Institute for Social Research as the University of Michigan indirectly suggests that becoming a skillful listener and effectively using those skills in support of others actually works to extend your whole lifespan! Who knew?

Generative Listening

So, what is this seemingly magical power that listening holds? I’m not sure, but Peter Senge and his colleagues at MIT in their book, Presence, describe something they call generative listening. Generative listening asks us to examine what lies at the heart of our work and our lives. The power of such inquiry is wonderfully captured by pastoral counseling professor, David Augsberger who observed: “An open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart” and “Being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.” Might listening skillfully somehow activate the energy of the heart, which researchers at the Heartmath Institute tell us generates a magnetic field 5000 times stronger than any other organ in the body? I wouldn’t be surprised. In my estimation the work of becoming skilled at listening is learning any number of ways of putting the strength of this organ into optimal service. What’s your best sense?  If you think this human enterprise is worth exploring further, smileygrouphug2I cordially invite you to take a look at this piece I was recently interviewed for by the L. A. Times, (Click on the “Living Well” link on the left side of the page).