Listen Generously! The Healing Power of Listening!

Nadine Stair of Louisville, Kentucky, was 85-years-old when she wrote, “If I Had My Life to Live Over”:

“I’d like to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones. . . . I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.”

Nadine had something to say from the perspective of a life well-lived.  It is good that she felt like sharing her experience and it is good for us to listen to her wisdom.  In fact it is healthy for all of us—you, her, and me!

When you listen to others, you lower their stress levels and offer them a sounding board to solve their own dilemmas, according to Rebecca Shafir, a Massachusetts-based communications expert and author of ”The Zen of Listening.”  She notes research by Texas psychologist James Pennebaker showing that when people were given a chance to discuss a stressful event in their lives with willing listeners, their blood pressure decreased and their immune system strengthened.  Being heard also boosts self-esteem:  “We feel important when someone takes the time to hear us out,” says Shafir.

Listening is also a gift that you give yourself.  It strengthens relationships, which can have a powerful influence on health and well-being.  It also invigorates the mind:  Positron emission tomography (PET) scans reveal that blood flow increases to many parts of the brain during listening.  And it can revitalize your spirit when you’re ill.  In a 1999 study, five people with multiple sclerosis were trained to offer compassionate listening and support over the phone to other MS patients for two years.  These listeners experienced dramatic changes in how they viewed themselves: Self-esteem, self-confidence, and depression all improved markedly.

Here are five suggestions for becoming a better listener.  Listen generously!

  1. Quiet your mind.  It helps to take a few complete cycles of breathing – a complete exhale all the way to the bottom of the breath and a full inhale – one so you feel your belly and chest expand.  Make sure your exhale and inhale and at least equal in length or have your exhale be a little longer than your inhale.  This triggers the calming branch of your nervous system and often will calm your mind in just a few breaths.
  2. Talk less.  There’s a quote by Mark Twain that goes, “If God had wanted us to speak more and listen less, we would have been given 2 mouths and 1 ear!” Having an intention to listen generously helps us to stay focused and when we notice that we’re starting to think about what we can say, we have our intention to bring us back to listening.  This helps a lot.
  3. Don’t interrupt.  One of the clearest indicators that someone isn’t listening  is interruptions.  This demonstrates that rather than listening, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say and then say it.
  4. Don’t offer unwanted advice.  One of the most frequent things partners says about what they want when they speak is to be listened to – not given advice.  In fact, the advice is most often rejected and this often leads to conflict.
  5. Don’t let your story take over. It’s common to identify with what you are hearing and this is a way to connect.  But getting into the details of your own story can shut the other person down.  We can acknowledge that we identify with what is being said and keep listening, letting the other person know we are with them.  This benefits each person.

Happy Listening!

From:  Suzanne and Steve Kilkus

About the author

Suzanne Kilkus

Suzanne Kilkus is a Soto Zen meditation practitioner and teacher and has practiced as a therapist and counselor for over three decades. She is dedicated to assisting people in expanding their capacity for giving and receiving love, and for recognizing and expressing their basic goodness in everyday life. Her path to live with wholehearted compassion and care is an invitation to everyone. She is a teacher with Open Door Zen Community in Madison, WI.