Generative Listening

June 12th, 2009

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” Karl Menninger

I have been talking a lot about listening lately, hence, I have been wondering how to listen more and talk less. For any of you who know me, you know this as a life quest. Then as life would have it, I was presented with another chance to learn how. My seventeen-year-old son has been learning some hard lessons in the gentlest of ways recently through the eyes of his new girlfriend. Of course, I want to talk to him about it, but today in his blinding frustration and fear, I actually just listened. I thought I knew what he would say but once I stopped thinking and expecting what would come next, I saw him and heard him in a way that is rare between us.

My problem, and one that I share with many, is that I often get stopped at the words, when in fact real listening happens in the spaces beneath the words. Peter Senge describes it eloquently when he said, “You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light, which the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

This kind of listening is a place of grace. It is a mysterious and magnetic force that pulls people into that quiet attentive presence, which allows us to unfold and know ourselves. This is what I think my husband tried to tell me when he said that listening can be a shelter, too. I didn’t yet understand the healing and reciprocity that occurs when you step inside another’s experience completely. Judgment is replaced and what is left unifies the speaker and the listener so that both people walk away somehow enlarged and expanded.

Often, words don’t really describe things nearly as well as they describe our relationship to them. This is where misunderstanding comes from; in our rush to communicate we often hear the words, but not the heart of what is being said. Slowing down and paying full attention to the people you love gives you the chance to heal and connect in a way that words cannot. I am learning about the power of a loving silence, which gives the people you care about the chance to figure out what is inside of them.

Later that night my son struggled to express his feelings again. Taking the cue I have missed for years, but understood earlier in the day, I simply sat next to him quietly. The truth of the expertly crafted question showered over us and there he was finding the courage to look at aspects of relating that I have shouted at him for years. Truly no one can tell anyone anything, but we can be a loving presence to listen for what will become a protected and non-judgmental silence. This is why one of the most famous Supreme Court justices in American history, Oliver Wendell Holmes said; “It is the province of knowledge to speak and the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

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