The Art of Listening
Hitchhiking across the U.S. as a young man, spending countless hours in strangers’ cars, I began to develop my listening skills. I heard stories of broken hearts and lessons learned. A Catholic priest shared his experiences of the religious life with me, and in my next ride, a Protestant minister shared his different perspective. The man who picked me up after that said he had served time for murder. He didn’t offer details, and I chose not to press him. As a captive audience in the passenger seat of a car or truck, I learned to give people the freedom to tell their stories in their own way, at their own pace, without judgment. It was good practice for becoming a clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst years later.
Listening skills are perhaps more valuable than ever in an era in which there is great divisiveness and many people find it difficult to avoid conversational conflicts. I define sacred listening as listening patiently without judgment while recognizing the inherent worth of the speaker. It’s in listening that we learn more about the people around us while developing an essential relationship skill. We help people to feel heard, respected, and valued. Sacred listening can be a spiritual practice and a gift to others. Years ago, when I was on the path to become a Jungian analyst, I was required to undergo analysis myself. I asked my analyst what he felt was the most important thing he did for his patients. “I guess I just hang in there,” he said. In other words, he would keep listening to a patient even when they seemed to hit a plateau in their efforts to change.
You might find it challenging to listen without being poised on the brink of advising, criticizing, or correcting the person who is talking. Sometimes, too, you might want someone to hurry and finish so you can speak. A conversation that’s a competition for who has the better story tends to feature very little sacred listening. You might want to show off your knowledge or tell the other person how they ought to think, feel, or act, but these self-centered motivations can get in the way of the kind of listening that fosters healthy relationships and emotional intimacy. You might want to think about how it could benefit you and others if you were to become a better listener.
Practicing sacred listening can build other people’s trust in you. It can also help them discover their own inner wisdom: Pauses in the conversation and your gentle questions and observational comments can encourage them to go deeper into their self-exploration. I have found that remaining silent and listening, listening, and then listening some more has led to some of my patients coming up with solutions to their problems and insights into themselves that they might not have discovered otherwise.
Sometimes, listening is simply a gift of kindness that honors the other person. Despite any impatience or frustration you might be feeling, why not explore what could happen if you were to work on your listening skills and start practicing sacred listening?