Deep Listening

Listening is the foundation of conversation. Through hearing others carefully, we are able to step imaginatively and empathetically into their shoes, and to experience the world from an entirely different point of view, if only for a few moments. California salon enthusiast Shelley Kessler advocates listening “between the lines” as someone speaks, “hearing the feelings and the intentions as well as the words. It requires tremendous discipline.”

Active listening is not easy. For one thing, most people think about four times faster than they speak. When you’re listening, it’s easy to tune out a speaker while you turn over your own ideas. If you find yourself doing this, practice watching the person speaking as well as listening to what is being said. Note each word and nonverbal signal. If you regularly jump to conclusions about where someone is headed and then stop listening, discipline yourself to pay attention long enough to find out whether your assumption was correct.

Ask yourself how the person speaking feels about the subject, and whether her words are congruent with her body language and expressions. Notice which words trigger automatic reactions on your part. When you find yourself reacting merely because the speaker used a certain word, listen to determine whether the speaker is using the term the same way you use it. If you aren’t sure, ask for clarification rather than arguing about what it means.

When you listen deeply to others, you may find yourself without anything clever or moving to say when your turn comes around. But this lack of preparation is a blessing in disguise: It gives you access to spontaneous and heartfelt words. When you’re engaged in conversation, remember to take a deep, slow breath and to allow several seconds to pass before you speak. Restate the central issue in your mind so that you aren’t limited by, or simply reacting to, the previous person’s comments. Let go of the great thoughts you had while others were speaking. If nothing comes to mind, take another deep breath, until something wells up. As any group becomes accustomed to active listening and unprepared speaking, you’ll find everyone’s words growing in feeling, meaning, and impact.

From Salons: The Joy of Conversation (New Society Publishers, 2001) by Jaida N’ha Sandra and Jon Spayde. Written in conjunction with the editors of Utne Reader, this book is a thorough guide to both the history and the practical elements of salons. Look for it at your local bookstore or order it directly from us at 800/880-UTNE.

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