Compassionate Listening

 

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant…

 Today, I’ve been reviewing the past year and pondering the paths before me regarding the year to come. The country and, more dramatically, my state—and my friends, in their discussions of these things—have been through such turmoil and discord this past year that I find myself focusing on a desire for the blessing of true, from-the-heart dialogue. More than anything, this requires the ability to listen to oneself and the other with conscious and deep attention.

 Three years of spiritual direction training, a concurrent MA in Servant Leadership and rugged year of CPE, all emphasized my responsibility to the art of listening. For both CPE and spiritual direction, I wrote “Verbatims,” almost 75 of these over the course of those 3 years, and they have since become an illuminating spiritual practice and a way to continue deepening my listening. It turned out that at 75, I was just getting started.

 Verbatims support the reflection necessary to notice what I noticed and missed regarding the other’s responses and my own during our time together, and to hold both of us in the light while doing so. Chiefly, they are tools for self-knowledge.

 Meaning is sifted through many levels of listening: There is the literal dialogue, and then there are all the accompanying intonations, pauses, body language indications, eye movements, triggers, memories, and energetic pulls toward and away from each other. There are projections, denials, biases, transference, manipulations, desires, shadows and more shadows at play in any conversation. Remaining conscious to all of these dimensions so that a conversation can be between our hearts and unearth true feelings respectfully, while allowing Spirit to truly guide and be present within our communication, takes continual practice and tending, and yields continual gifts.

 I encourage you to use verbatim-writing, if it appeals to you, for reflection and for deepening your listening gifts. There are people who loathe writing and for whom this would not be a helpful practice; rest assured, there are a variety of ways to deepen our listening, and I’ll be happy to share others as well.

 I’ve added a template at the end of this post, and encourage to you to try using all, some, or just one part of it, and let me know your reaction.

 It works like this: Light a candle or use meditative music: whatever signifies to your spirit that your time of meditation and sacred work is beginning. (It can help to have a great pot of tea and some wonderful form of chocolate to sustain this meditation!)

 Still yourself through meditation, centering, deep breathing—whatever method you use, and then take time to recount a recent conversation you shared. (For me, it’s best to jot down some memories and dialogue as soon as I can after a conversation has ended, and then to wait through one sleep/dreaming time before continuing.)

 Begin to write, describing the setting and energy with which you and the other seemed to enter the encounter. Then, as best as you can recall, write down the dialogue (like the script of a play). You can start with about 20 exchanges and try to build from there as you grow comfortable with the practice. It may seem daunting, initially, to recall who said what, but I assure you, if you get into the flow, the gist of your time together will also flow fairly unimpeded as you gain experience. Whenever possible, you can add, in parentheses, what body movements, pauses, tones, etc. accompanied the spoken words.

When you’ve finished transcribing the dialogue, the deep work can begin: this is the gift of creating a verbatim, for me. Over the years, the whole process has become a form of prayer and meditation that gives me great peace.

This is not about judging yourself—or the other—but about improving your ability to truly speak and hear from the heart and grant others the space and safety of speaking from theirs.

 Here is the verbatim outline I use when I’m working as a spiritual director/companion, or just praying with a recent conversation. There are many other versions available; mix and match; add and discard as it serves your spirit and deepens your listening. This is always, and only, for your eyes, and meant to enhance your self-awareness and compassionate listening. Some people save their verbatims to review their growth and celebrate lessons learned; others burn them following reflection, or annually, at a time that for them is holy, as a kind of sacred offering to Spirit or to honor their commitment to a level of listening that is awake and compassionate. Always remember: this is a way to listen more compassionately to yourself as much as to the other.

 May the New Year offer us wonderful opportunities and invitations to deepen our listening; and so may we, the other, and the world be healed.

 Verbatim Template

 Introduction (Time/Place/Person/Relationship/Context): (A good place to start.)

Record of Conversation: (Write it down as fully and faithfully as you can. Re-writing and jotting notes—all over the verbatim—is encouraged!)

 Analysis and Evaluation

Movement: (How would you describe the individual, shared, and Spirit’s flow of energy from beginning to the end of this encounter? Sometimes using colors to trace these “energy flows” is helpful.)

 My Feelings: (Note, in as much detail as possible, what you were feeling at each point of the conversation. Where did you feel any significant shifts?)

Other Person’s Needs: (What do you understand about the yearning and desires—for connection, healing, wholeness, relationship, etc.—of your dialogue companion? Or, perhaps the other person just stated goals and implied a need for support and a desire for clarity. Note wherever in the conversation s/he identified a feeling.)

Seed: (What would you isolate as the “important truth” of this encounter? Keep it simple and pure: what was this conversation “really” about? There may be one for you, and one for the other, that you sense and would like to explore.)

 What I’d Do Differently: (As you are present to this conversation, can you identify, within your own responses/movements, anything that you would change? Remember, this is about deepening your listening: Did you interrupt your companion out of anxiety, and so impede her own ability to hear herself or follow a thought along its journey? Did you veer off to another subject? Did you re-direct conversation away from the revelation of feelings and matters of the heart and head back to the good, old reliable brain? Did your attention drift, or did you become focused on your next response and so limit your listening?

 I learned two techniques in my training that I will always treasure: First, avoid asking too many, if any, “Why” questions. These can quickly turn people away from the heart and back towards the brain. Use “why” very sparingly.

 And—I cannot emphasize this enough—perhaps the most integral aspect of deep listening is to learn to be comfortable with pauses, however long. Over and over, this is what has yielded the most remarkable gifts in my listening. “Let silence do the heavy lifting.” Silent and listen contain the same letters; they are close kin and powerful allies on my listening journeys.)

What did this reveal: (About each of you, and reveal about your attitude toward the other person? Did you feel hooked at any point, or resist anything shared during this conversation? This is a very important part of the verbatim regarding your self-awareness and growth) 

Future Involvement and Learning: (What might you learn more about, or seek to master so as to improve the listening you offer this person, yourself, others, and Spirit?)

Spiritual Reflections: (How did this encounter echo, challenge, invite, etc., your spirit to grow? How did it affirm your journey? Are any patterns or practices made clear? If there is a theology that holds meaning and direction for you, how is it integrated into your listening? If you have a connection to an image of the Holy, how was that affected by this encounter? How has your spirit been moved by this, and do you have a sense of how the greater Spirit was—and is—present to you?)

Identity and Style: (What has this revealed to you about yourself and your way of listening, being present, embracing mystery…etc.?)

Take time to be with this verbatim and revisit it for deeper reflection. Honor yourself and the other with a blessing before ending the practice. Listen and heal; listen and be healed.


 

7 thoughts on “Compassionate Listening

  1. What a wonderfully contemplative way to start my morning.
    This is something I would like to do. I may be back several times to write down and ponder what you have listed Catherine, and I may point people towards this sharing? I hope you don’t mind?

    I so agree with you that in Wisconsin (not to mention the world),
    our first peace, is to listen with our hearts. It was a tough year last year politically, friends and families dividing over personal beliefs, and this would serve to bring some balance back to all of us. I often ponder the notion how we can separate our spirituality from government, as really…I have often found it difficult to do. That is to say, I try to make decisions for myself with my spirituality as my focus, thus leading me in the direction of my heart? I do hope our awareness, our awakening on this planet comes soon.

    Thank You for such a heartfelt sharing…it moves the heart in the right direction, for right living and contemplation! 🙂

    Happy and Prosperous New Year Catherine!

    • I love your thoughtful insights, Akasa; thank you! And I agree; for me, meeting life authentically means my “embodied spirit” is always connected to my sense of Source, which seems more welcoming and natural than having to live and act with a set of dual filters labeled “body” and “spirit.” To stay consciously connected to that peaceful center is what I wish for all of us.

      Please share as you feel inclined, and great peace and joy to you in this shiny new year!

  2. Well, I just spoke to you of listening, in another comment on your blog… and here I see you’ve given quite some attention to listening to other human beings. Maybe I should read all of your blogs before commenting… perhaps I’ll find more on your experiences as a chaplain too. So far, I can tell you that it is a great pleasure to explore your blog here.

    • No, please, comment wherever and however you like. I don’t think I’ve dedicated a lot of writing time/space to focus solely on chaplaincy, but I refer to some of my chaplaincy experiences here and there, to “season” a reflection or extend a metaphor…I’m happy to share more about my training and experiences if there are some aspects that interests you. I worked in a cardiac hospital within a larger hospital (and all of its departments, when I was “on-call,”) for three years, and then as a hospice chaplain for two more. I’m taking a break right now to focus on my writing, but may serve as a chaplain again, in a part time capacity…

      It is a pleasure to have your company, Shimon!

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