Last month during our retreat in Palos Verdes we participated in two listening exercises about which I have thought a great deal. I wanted to share a few of my reflections in the hope that they will echo your own thoughts and experiences. The two exercises were simple enough. The first consisted of an activity where, sitting back to back with a partner, we followed their description of a shape they were making. We then attempted to rebuild that same shape without either seeing the original or being able to ask questions of the person creating the design. The second exercise involved sitting face to face with a partner and actively listening to what they had to share. In this exercise, we asked questions to see if we understood the speaker correctly and did so without judgment or adding our own personal experiences to what was said. Although deceptively straightforward, the two activities were actually far more significant than I first appreciated. The greatest struggle I had was in accepting the possibility that what I wanted to say might not be that urgent after all, and might even be a hindrance to my understanding what the person next to me was trying to communicate.
What we were doing, in essence, was what I would like to call "attending to the Other". By this I mean, that we intentionally stilled that voice within each of us that wants to project our own selves out into the world. For just a few moments, we gave the words of the one speaking all the weight of the world; something our egos generally resist. :
It is hard to be fully present with someone, because it requires deliberately breaking "the solitude" of our lives, in order to reach into someone else's world
In so far as listening to those around us demands that we give as much weight to their concerns as we do our own, simply lending an ear to another pulls us into the world of moral relations. The process of intentional listening, of being with and for someone else, is a profoundly ethical act. In opening ourselves to another through language, we transform their words from mere instruments of meaning into signs and testaments of their humanity and distinct individuality. In listening deeply to each other, we do not simply recognize and affirm the value of civility, although we are certainly doing that as well. We are also shifting the focus of our consciousness; first, from “me” to “you,” and then from “you” to a larger "us" or a collective consciousness.
These two simple exercises were powerful tools for illuminating the ways that we are connected to and transformed by those around us. Rather than approaching the self directly, when we turned out attention to those around us, we eventually did return to ourselves but to selves that were quieter, more reflective, calmer. I developed a greater appreciation of just how much we ourselves disrupt the clear communication with those around us we so eagerly seek. It was the first time I consciously used listening as a gateway to self-discovery and the insight that comes from the careful examination of our thought processes and behaviors. It was a strong reminder for me that attending to the Other openly, honestly, and without pushing my own agenda is the surest way for me not only to understand who they are but who I am as well.