We all know what it feels like to not be heard — and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, to be in the position of the inattentive listener. It can be hard to put our own concerns and opinions aside and really pay attention to what another person is saying, especially if the subject matter is unfamiliar, boring, or makes us uncomfortable.
One of the greatest gifts we can offer someone, however, is our whole-hearted attention. In my role as a Zen teacher, I practice and teach “compassionate listening” to help students connect more deeply with others. I’ve seen this practice disarm conflict, uplift spirits, and transform relationships. It brings profound insight, helping us understand our conversation partners at a much deeper level and affording us the privilege of holding space in our minds and hearts for ideas and perspectives beyond our own.
Compassionate listening is simple to practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to master. It requires that you devote your whole self — body, mind, and heart — to understanding and sharing another person’s experience in the moment. It may not come naturally, but it is something you can learn by practicing the following five skills.
Work on these skills one at a time, or dive in and practice all of them in your next conversation. I suggest starting small: Ask a friend how his day went and practice listening deeply.
1. Listen With Your Whole Body
How: Turn your body to face the person who’s speaking and set aside all other activities. Sit or stand up straight and be still. Look into the speaker’s eyes.
Why: You may notice the impulse to glance away or play with your phone. Other people’s emotions can feel awkward or even intimidating (sadness and anger can be particularly hard to experience), and fidgeting is a way to escape the intensity. But when you practice stillness, you choose to not run away from the emotions that come up. You choose instead to be physically and emotionally present.
2. Hear With Your Whole Mind
How: Give your full mental attention to the speaker. When you notice you are thinking about something else, let that thought go and come back to deep listening.
Why: Mental distraction is a big obstacle. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know how relentlessly thoughts can draw our attention away from the moment and into the past, the future, or judgments of the present. Or maybe an important idea occurs to you, and you worry that you’ll lose your own mental thread if you don’t speak or act on it immediately. Trust that the thoughts will return when you need them; you don’t always need to figure things out right away. Compassionate listening can help you cultivate awareness of the actual moment and settle into life as it is happening.
3. Know Your Own Heart
How: Notice what emotions arise while you’re listening. Acknowledge them, and then set them aside for now.
Why: You may hear something that triggers a strong emotional response. For example, the speaker may be mad at you — and want you to know it! We all have our habitual reactions to unpleasant interactions: defensiveness, placating, deflecting with humor, perhaps retreating into silence. Compassionate listening enables you to recognize these tendencies and the often-unacknowledged feelings behind them. Knowing your own heart makes it easier to understand the heart of another, and when you temporarily put your own charged emotions aside, you create the conditions for deeper connection.
4. Open Your Whole Heart
How: Listen beyond the words a person says. Pay attention to the way his body, face, and voice express emotion. Take in his whole feeling.
Why: When your own reactive emotions dominate, you don’t notice the underlying emotion the other person is expressing. Take that angry person who is letting you have it: Notice her expression, tone, and actions — do they convey sadness, fear, or anxiety beyond her spoken words? By paying attention to nonverbal cues, you can empathize with that deeper experience and better understand the depth and meaning behind the words.
5. Let It Be
How: Refrain from giving advice or trying to solve the other person’s problem.
Why: Advice is a specific type of communication. There is a time and place for it — but now is not that time. There’s no need to say, “It’ll get better soon,” “There’s more than one fish in the sea,” or “Maybe you could try …” Just listen. Learn to sit with the feelings that come up. Make your ears and your heart one big space where another person can be completely heard and held. It is profoundly empowering to see that you can actually be with the sadness, anger, or despair of others — that you can live together through the hard times and the good times. Something beautiful flows out of just being present with each other. Trust that.
An expanded version of this article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Compassionate Listening.”