Most leaders die with their mouths open, said once Ronald Heifetz, the co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. In exercising leadership, talking often trumps listening. A poignant observation, which might resonate with our own everyday experience. It might also help us to realize how often we like to have our mouth open, despite the fact that we have two ears and only one mouth! But uttering words sometimes gives us the illusion of confidence or of being in command. Ultimately, having the mouth open is understood as having power.
And yet, it is listening rather than talking, that holds the power to bring about change. If you ever had the chance to meet a great spiritual leader in your life, you will recognize that it was his or her silence and gaze that hooked you rather than his or her spoken words; a silence that took you in, that made you feel welcomed, understood, accepted without judgment. Not because of the spiritual leader’s words, but because of the silence, the deep listening, were you able to have insights into your own life, and to give new meaning to your own experience.
Allow me to share with you a recent personal experience. A few months ago I was in a small town in Turkey at the border with Syria. I was part of a conflict resolution workshop for Syrian community leaders. At one point, reacting to something I had said, a woman with her face framed in an elegant chador, begun to talk to me in an agitated way. She poured out the intense pain the war had caused to her family and her village. With rage, she shared how her two brothers had been killed. As I was listening and looking at her, I realized I became agitated as well. I was growing frantic, anxious to find answers to the questions she was throwing at me. When I became aware of how her tragedy was keeping my own mind hostage, I was able to quite my mind and just pay attention, fully present, to what this woman was sharing with me. When she was done, I continued to look at her for a few more instants. I was present to her, we were together in the now, and my silence, not my answer, told her that. Then another person begun to talk and I turned my attention to the new speaker. But I did not say a word to the woman who had spoken to me. I answered to none of the questions she had asked. A few hours later, that woman approached me, and told me, “Thank you for listening to me. I found peace while I was talking to you.” Something had shifted in her, something had quieted within her, and something had changed her state of mind in that moment. It was because of the deep listening, not because of my talking.
In a previous post, I highlighted the importance of becoming aware of how our own experiences, beliefs, gender, race, etc. influence the way in which we listen to others. These conditionings can be a noise in our ability to listen deeply. In the story I shared above, it was the fact that I was seeing myself as the expert in the room, who has to give answers, that interfeered in my communication with the woman from Syria, creating a gap. We need to be able to put aside our individuality, if we want to meet the other. The glass has to be empty, if you want to pour in some new wine.
Shunruy Suzuki, a great Zen master and spiritual leader, once said it beautifully:
“When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other.”
How to start developing this ability to listen deeply? Eckhart Tolle writes about “watching the thinker,” that is the practice of paying attention to our inner voice, to our own thoughts and thus becoming aware not only of our thoughts but also of ourselves as witnesses of our own thoughts. It was this double awareness, this mindfulness, that allowed me to become aware of what was happening within me as the woman shared her personal ordeal. Because I watched my emotions and thoughts, I was able to redirect my full attention to her in the present moment.
It is only from a state of deep listening, of great awareness and full attention - that is of mindfulness - that spoken words (if they have to be uttered at all) will have all their powerful effect. It is deep listening that is transformative and this can be experienced only if we first shut our mouth (and our thoughts) and open our ears (devoting full attention to the other).
Aldo Civico is the founder of the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University. An anthropologist, he does conflict resolution around the world. He has also a coaching practice to help individuals and organization to find their voice. www.aldocivicocoaching.com