Living from the listener


An excerpt from pp. 34-36 of “Love Always Wins: Hope for Healing the Epidemic of Violence” by David M. Hazen,

Radical, active committed listening is the fuel that launches the recovery process. In the 12-step program, there is a structure of simple expectations for listening. Only one person speaks at a time, everybody is given enough time to finish what they need to say, and we don’t comment on what other people said. We speak only about our own experience. We don’t gossip, or at least we try to not gossip. This practice supports the anonymity of the members of the group, the confidentiality and safety of the group. What is said in meetings stays in meetings. It is now very exciting for me when I meet a real Listener outside of a 12-step meeting. Think about it, and it’s probably true for you also. Do you need to be heard, completely heard in a safe situation?

The listener and the speaker are faced with the exact same question: “How much do I want to be really seen and known as I truly am?” The speaker is just telling their story, but the listener becomes just as visibly known by how well they listen, accept, and respect the story of another without comment, interpretation or expansion.

Listening -- not just hearing -- real listening is an act of love. When I am speaking, and an individual or group of people is listening to me with their full attention, not interrupting, and making eye contact with me, I can feel the acceptance. I can feel the love, and can trust that I am OK just the way I am. It’s very difficult to perpetuate my distrust of others when I am constantly exposed to this kind of listening week after week in my 12-step meetings, and yet I have found myself threatened by it.

Some of us grew up with so many conditions laid upon us that we do not know how to respond to a lack of conditions. We may feel disoriented and lost. We truly are lost. We have lost our true selves. In spite of our desperately wanting to no longer live in the hell of solitary confinement, when the jail cell opens we duck for cover. We stop telling the truth about ourselves. We want to be loved unconditionally, to be trusted. We want to be truly safe, to be OK with not having the answers, and when this precious jewel of mutual trust and respect begins to appear, we are often too frightened to tell ourselves what it is we really need to hear.

The soul is like a wild animal: tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, yet exceedingly shy. To see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is crash through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the foot of a tree, the creature may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will glimpse the precious wildness we seek. 

Therefore, it is important as listener to allow speakers the time and space to find themselves in their speaking, to not help them out of their cocoon, to let them develop their own conclusions, lessons and meanings to their own life story. We cannot force someone else to be honest or to say more than they want to say. We cannot make them accept our analysis and interpretation of their situation. We cannot solve their problems or reveal what they should do next in their life.

As listener, we need to “just drive the car that we are in,” and not someone else’s. Our analyzing another person could be a way of avoiding being seen, of hiding, of keeping the focus away from what we fear, the emptiness within us that seems so real (it isn’t).

This kind of listening is done with humility. Humility is the awareness that regardless of what role or title we have borne in human society, we are but a speck of sand on the beach of the Universe. We are equal to all the other grains of sand, yet still have a unique role in the unfolding of the Universe.

When we respect another’s privacy, their sense of living within their own skin, their boundaries and limits that protect them from being used, controlled or invaded by another person, that respect develops trust between us.

That trust encourages openness. Deep within a person who speaks openly we begin to see our essential selves, and we hear the echo of our own story within their story.

Our work in the cultural recovery from violence dependency is on ourselves. It takes more courage and strength of character to trust our angry and grieved companions on this journey, to stay in communication, than it does to imagine that we have the answer. We cannot claim to have "the answer," because we don't know what it really is. All we have is a crude map. There are many paths that all lead to the same place.

Listening to others is a form of service to them. As we develop skill in that service, we begin to also develop the ability to listen to our own deepest internal self-talk. We develop a compassionate witness, a self-empathy and self- respect. We see the similarity between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we are hearing. The irony of our mutual foolishness begins to emerge in bursts of laughter and sometimes in bursts of shared tears. This is what I see happening in 12-step recovery meetings.

Eventually, as shared insights become the things that we treasure, we discover something unexpected and unpredictable will arise, especially if more than two people are present. In small groups that are gathered in circles expressing the equality of all those present, a wisdom beyond the capacity of any one person will bubble to the surface, literally pop out of someone’s mouth without any forethought. This has been known in indigenous cultures since the dawn of humanity and lost in the industrialized culture. When given the space to be there, a collective wisdom, a creative solution to a vexing problem, appears spontaneously out of seemingly nowhere. 

There are currently many cutting-edge practitioners developing ways to apply this phenomenon not only to personal development but also to organizational development in business and politics.14

To summarize, I suggest that listening is the primary activity for building a culture of peace, within a person, a family, a neighborhood, a nation or the entire planet. If we practice deep listening, we begin to live according to these four principles:

1. We release all expectations. The less fixed our ideas about what peace is supposed to look like, or how to get there or how soon, the more able we will be to recognize resources as they arise. This is a multi-year experiment, one step at a time, and may require restarting the process several times.

2. We regard everyone as a resource, because everyone in our life is a stakeholder, and no matter their level of involvement, they each have a unique contribution to make. Peace is about inclusiveness.

3. We focus on the process, not the result. In order to empower ourselves to take action, we need to create connection that is heart-to-heart, face-to-face, and to allow an abundance of time and space for conversation to occur. We encourage listening and empathy skills. We build the common story of what’s valued.

4. We see ourselves as part of a movement that focuses on strengthening positive assets. We’re not on a campaign to force specific changes to happen. We avoid fixed positions, declarations, becoming institutionalized, or issue-focused. This is about maintaining a conversation, a vision and hope of what is possible, not about policies or politics.

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