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The Power of Compassionate Listening

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Lesley McCall

Summer 2017

The Power of Compassionate Listening


‘Listening can help end the suffering of an individual, and war and change the world’, so says Thich Nhat Hanh a Buddhist monk and peace activist. He is convinced that if we all just listened to each other – really listened – it could end violence and suffering. Is he right do you think? 

What is this ‘Compassionate listening’ then?

Compassionate listening is listening with no personal agenda. Your only purpose is to ease somebody’s suffering and help them.

Now, as a therapist, the one skill you need to learn fast is how to listen more than talk. It’s much harder than you might think. When I started out, armed with all my new knowledge, I couldn’t wait to share my wonderful advice with everyone. But that’s the point: people don’t just come to therapists for advice – they come to be listened to. They want to talk to somebody who is sympathetic, non-judgemental and kind. Somebody with whom they can safely share their deepest problems. They want to be listened to without being offered advice, opinions or criticism. They want to have their Model of the World respected not questioned.

One of the most important lessons we learn as therapists is that you cannot change perspectives by disagreeing with people or pointing out why it’s wrong. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘You help someone empty their heart – even if they have a different perspective to yours, even if they are bitter or angry, you must just listen. That is what helps them to suffer less. If you want to help them correct their perception wait for another time.’

This is how we, as Quest-trained Cognitive Hypnotherapists, work. Initially, just allow the client to talk– just pour out their fears and anxieties before you ‘do‘ anything else. After that, maybe begin work on changing negative perspectives to positive ones. However, it all comes from the client – their MOTW (Model Of The World) – their change – their lives– their choices.

It can be incredible – the change that can happen – just by listening in a compassionate, non-judgmental way. Allowing them to get all that negative emotion, all those deep fears off their chest means you can sometimes see people change before your very eyes; their body language seems lighter, as if they had shed part of their heavy load already.

So how can we learn compassionate listening?

Firstly, empty your mind of what you believe, what you think, what you need, what bothers you. It’s not about you, it’s about the person you are listening to. This is a gift you are giving them – and the best gifts come without conditions or hidden motives. If you expect something back it’s not a gift, it’s a trade. Obviously, as a therapist, I am paid for what I do, but as the founder of Cognitive Hypnotherapy, Trevor Sylvester, says ‘Chasing the money never works’. If we do this with the only objective of getting paid then we are not doing our job effectively and we are not listening compassionately. We listen to help – to reduce and eventually end suffering. That is our principal objective – not to feel clever and to give advice, but to help someone feel better.

Distance yourself. Compassionate listening is not about your misery or your issues. If I sat on my couch sobbing next to my clients that would be useless and more than a little weird. Although some of the things I hear from clients are very moving, their emotion is their emotion, their pain is their pain. A therapist’s job is to maintain a non-judgemental and sympathetic distance – and compassionate listening is about not about making it about you – not your emotion but theirs.

Don’t be waiting for your turn to speak. The worst thing anyone can say to me is ‘You’re not listening to me’ – that normally means I am not fully engaged – that I have not been concentrating enough. People are often working out in their minds what they want to say next – which means they are not concentrating on what the person is saying now – which means you are not hearing what they are saying. Also, people can be so eager to talk that they miss some of what is being said or worse, interrupt before someone has finished speaking – which is disrespectful. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say – pauses in a conversation for thought are ok.

Don’t feel obliged to ‘do ‘anything. The ‘rescuer’ in us often wants to fix things, but that’s not always possible. The past cannot be changed or fixed, but the negative emotion or behaviours attached to it can be helped and healed. When people ‘unload’ they don’t always want advice or help – they want a sympathetic listener to help them get closure, perspective, to get rid of and understand negative thoughts. Our role as a compassionate listener is just to be there, paying quiet attention, focused on the one who needs help.

Compassionate listening ends violence

This is a big claim by Thich Nhat Hanh! But if we think about violence, where does it come from? Who is violent and why? Violence often comes from anger – and what is the foundation of that anger? We could say that violent people have a distorted perception – their view of the world is twisted by bitterness and hatred. Whatever the apparent cause, be it religion, territory or politics, violence often comes from people who believe that their view is the only correct one. It is no good using violence against violence. Time and time again, it has been shown that this simply solidifies people’s distorted beliefs and turns them into ‘martyrs’.

Angry people can feel that nobody understands them, nobody ever listens. A teenager who self- harms is violent to themselves. They will not respond to punishments or arguments, but will eventually respond to a compassionate, non-judgemental and loving space to talk in. They don’t want advice, and disapproval will not change negative perceptions, but simply trying to see it from their point of view (however distorted it may seem to you) often influences them to at least think about what they are doing. Kindness is more effective than discipline.

Why don’t people ever listen?

Compassionate listening is hard to do – we instinctively want to help, to advise, to correct people when they are ‘wrong’. Compassionate listening works both ways – by focusing on what someone is saying and listening to their views without comment or agenda – you may find that your understanding changes and even your own perceptions. Your compassion may change their perception – and through better understanding comes compromise. Violence and hatred cannot thrive in an atmosphere of understanding, compromise and kindness.

When you offer compassionate listening, you offer hope and a belief that things may change. Suffering can feel familiar and safe and so people get stuck in their negative beliefs. When we help release them from those beliefs, we also alleviate their suffering. Just knowing that someone cares enough to put their own ego aside and just listen can give hope that tomorrow may be a better day.

So maybe, just maybe, compassionate listening could end wars, violence and suffering.

Let’s all give it a try and see.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”

Margaret J. Wheatley