“The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening.” – Solomon Ibn Gabriol
Recently I wrote a post about acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton’s search for natural silence, and something he said to a New York Times reporter caught my attention:
“When you become a better listener to nature, you become a better listener to your community, your children, the people you work with.”
We’ve become so good at blocking out the jarring sounds of our modern world – the sirens, jets, garbage trucks, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, honking horns, barking dogs, and blaring televisions – are we also ignoring each other?
Margaret Wheatley thinks so. She’s a writer, teacher and consultant, who travels the world advising organizations going through times of change and stress. She’s worked with the U.S. Army, Fortune 100 corporations, the Girl Scouts and numerous foundations, public schools, government agencies, colleges, churches, professional associations and monasteries. Several years ago she visited an organization I worked for, which seems to be in a constant state of tumult.
Wheatley says that our natural state is to be together, but we keep moving away from each other. And she thinks the reason for that is that we’re all trying to tell our own stories, but nobody is listening. In her book, Finding Our Way, she writes:
This is an increasingly noisy era — people shout at each other in print, at work, on TV. I believe the volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. In public places, in the media, we reward the loudest and most outrageous. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen.
Gordon Hempton says we can learn to listen by spending time in natural places and listening to silence. Wheatley says we should practice by approaching someone we don’t know, don’t like, or whose way of living is a mystery to us, and sit quietly and listen to what they have to say.
Could you keep yourself from arguing, or defending, or saying anything for awhile? Could you encourage the person to just keep telling you his or her version of things, that one side of the story? … I know now that neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned passionately presented arguments. Things change when I’ve created even just a slight movement toward wholeness, when I move closer to another through my patient, willing listening.
In 1971 activist John Francis saw two oil liners collide beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and decided to stop riding in and driving motorized vehicles. In the weeks afterward, he announced his decision to his friends and family and found himself in countless arguments. He soon got tired of fighting and decided to spend a day just being silent and listening. In his TED speech he explains:
So on this first day, I actually listened. And it was very sad to me, because I realized that for those many years, I had not been learning. I was 27. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t. And so I decided I better do this for another day, then another day … Well, that lasted 17 years.
While Francis was listening, he walked across the United States, got a PhD in environmental studies, and even taught university-level classes.
Lately I’ve noticed the healing power of listening in my own life. The other night my son resisted going to sleep. He lay tossing and turning, restless. We sang songs. We told stories.
“Are you scared of something?” I finally asked.
“Trash truck outside,” he said.
Our garbage had been picked up earlier, and we’d watched from the window as the truck’s mechanical arm lowered and snatched our garbage pails. “You’re scared of the trash truck,” I repeated.
“Yeah,” he said, and within minutes he was asleep. It made me reflect on all the times I was grieving or anxious or couldn’t sleep, and I told my husband about it, and he heard me, and that was enough.
Some believe just listening might even be enough to help heal some of the world’s most violent and entrenched stalemates. Participants of the Compassionate Listening Project travel to the Middle East to listen to Israeli and Palestinian people’s stories. Leah Green wrote about it for YES! Magazine in 2001:
After years of listening, it has become so clear to me: all are suffering, all are wounded, all want to live with security, justice and peace. All are worthy of our compassion.The question remains, how do we break the cycles of violence? Perhaps listening is one of the keys. I’m now holding the vision of a new, global listening movement.
What do you think? Have you experienced the healing power of listening? Do we need a global listening movement?