The art of active listening

When you look directly into my eyes, you ought to see a reflection of yourself.

Reflection in water (photo credit: REUTERS)
Reflection in water
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Do you practice active listening?
I remember standing on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean in Central California, gazing down at the blue waters, shimmering waves and bright sunlight. I was completely transfixed by the scene. Having lost all critical thought, I was aware of only one sense: sight. Such is the power of sight. It draws us in completely and takes momentary possession of our minds. We stop thinking for ourselves and become what we are looking at.
Listening is different. The person talking to you is outside reaching in, grasping for your attention. Sight is active, you reach out to take it in. You open yourself to the scene and let it fill you completely. Listening is passive, you sit back while others seek your attention. It’s much harder to be completely open when you’re passive and therefore much harder to be fully absorbed by what you hear.
However, active listening is the key to genuine communication. Active listening is defined as suspending internal judgement and commentary while focusing entirely on the speaker. You also need to provide cues of being riveted and interested such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, making encouraging sounds and where appropriate, asking for clarification. You need to help the speaker feel that you aren’t on the outside listening in. You are listening to them, as you would listen to yourself.
This puts your interlocutor at ease. They feel understood. They feel that you are on their side. You see things the way they do and share their feelings on the matter. It frees them to speak their mind and communicate their truest feelings with clarity. When they feel judged, they hedge and waste sentences defending their position, which hinders communication. In a debate it makes sense to justify your position, but in conversation the intent is to share thoughts and feelings, not to defend them.
A true listener listens from the speaker’s point of view. You might have a completely different point of view, but when practicing active listening, your point of view becomes irrelevant. Your goal is to understand the other persons point of view, not to judge it against your own.
The more actively you listen, the more you draw out the speaker. The more you draw them out, the more you learn. In fact the more they talk, the more they learn about themselves and about the problem they are discussing. It is often the case that the problem is solved merely by listening. We think we need to offer an opinion to solve a problem, Often, it is through listening that we give the other a chance to fully explore the problem and come to recognize the solution on their own.
Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri, the second Rebbe of Chabad, was once asked why chatting with Hassidim exhausted him. He explained that when a hassid speaks to him, he must shed his own garments and don the hassid’s garments so as to listen well. When he considers the problem, he must shed the hassid’s garments and don his own so that he understands well. When he shares his advice, he must once again shed his own garments and don the hassid’s garments so that he communicates well. It is no wonder that he is exhausted after changing garments three times in a single audience.
I know someone who went to the same therapist for fourteen years. He swears by this therapist and claims she solves his problems. For the first ten years she never offered an opinion. She just sat there and listened. As he talked, he felt understood and accepted. He first grew comfortable with himself and slowly began to grow comfortable with his feelings. She made it possible for him to explore his feelings and even acknowledge his faults. His therapist taught him more about himself by listening then she could ever have done by talking.
It was only after ten years that he was ready to listen to her and ask for guidance. She began to explain things to him and to encourage him. She understood perfectly that if she had talked earlier, he wouldn’t have accepted her advice. After ten years, her words were effective. He was finally ready to listen.
It isn’t only professionals who need to practice active listening, we all must. When you look directly into my eyes, you ought to see a reflection of yourself. When I listen to you, my mind should be so filled with you that when you look into me, you see yourself. I should think and feel as you do. While listening to you, my thoughts should be irrelevant and my judgement should be suspended. Then, and only then, will I truly understand you.
Active listening requires discipline and skill. We must be able to refrain from offering opinions even when asked. The impulse to answer is strong, but your interlocutor benefits more from your silence. The temptation to take ownership of the other persons problem is strong, but we cannot own someone else’s problem. We can offer encouragement and support, but not solutions. Instead we nurture them until they find it.
In other words, when practicing active listening, you set yourself aside and fill your mind with the other. You think like them, feel like them and listen to them. In a sense you let go of being yourself and become them. As the Rebbe put it, you shed your own garments, your thoughts and perspectives, and don theirs. This requires humility, but it is only with humility that you make a connection.
When you are filled with your own thoughts and judgments there is little space for others. To fill yourself with another, you must make space. You must be free of yourself and become transparent.
King Solomon wrote, 'As the waters reflect the face [that peers into them] so does the heart reflect the heart.' Waters only reflect the face when they are clear and transparent. When they are murky, they don’t reflect at all. The same is true of us. When we become transparent, free of ourselves, our interlocutor feels completely at home in our presence. They look into our face and see a reflection of themselves. They find empathy and understanding, nearly as if they see themselves staring back at them. In other words, active listening means to turn yourself into a mirror.
Perhaps this can help us understand why the Torah emphasizes the importance of listening to G-d. The Torah promises reward for listening and punishment for not listening. Even more than obedience, which has its own word in Hebrew, the Torah demands listening. Surely listening includes obedience, but the Torah seems to emphasize listening over obeying.
Perhaps the Torah is encouraging active listening. Active listening is setting aside our objections and doubts, filling ourselves with G-d’s thoughts. Active listening is humbly setting ourselves aside and becoming fully absorbed by G-d. Active listening is becoming free of ourselves and transparent before G-d. It is a feat worthy of reward. May we perfect the art with our fellow Jews and learn to practice it with G-d.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]