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How Listening Is the Ultimate Act of Generosity

Giving the precious gift of our attention.

Pixabay image by johnhain
Source: Pixabay image by johnhain

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus

Pixabay image by johnhain
Source: Pixabay image by johnhain

The word “generosity” may prompt thoughts of donating money or helping the needy. While these may be generous acts, there’s a more fundamental way to extend generosity that we often miss — and it doesn't cost a dime.

We all long to be seen and understood. The epidemic of loneliness in our society is due in part to how we often don't hear each other. Perhaps we grew up in a family in which we didn’t feel heard and held a lot inside. Or we felt so criticized and shamed when we tried to express our feelings and needs to a partner that we decided it’s just not worth trying.

Sadly, our feelings and longings go into hiding when we give up on them. We shut down our vulnerability to protect ourselves from being hurt. We may have given up on turning toward others for support, reassurance, or encouragement. As a result, we isolate ourselves. We succumb to the emptiness that derives from removing ourselves from the fabric of life.

Being human means being wired with a need for connection. We thrive when we receive kindness and caring—and when we feel heard and understood. When those needs go unmet, we may give up on them and seek substitute gratifications such as power, fame, or money, which don't really satisfy the deeper yearnings of our soul. Trying to soothe painful loneliness, we may resort to addictions that distract us from our unmet longings.

As we lose sensitivity to our own feelings and yearnings, we lose sensitivity to the plight of others. I would suggest that this loss of sensitivity to our own legitimate needs and those of others is at the core of our dysfunctional society. This is a sad state of affairs, especially when those in leadership positions promote policies that increase divisiveness and dissociation.

Generosity Toward Ourselves

Being generous toward others begins by cultivating a generous presence toward ourselves. Rather than be mired in self-criticism and shame, we can cultivate a “caring, feeling presence” toward our feelings, as described by Focusing teachers Dr. Edwin McMahon and Dr. Peter Campbell. As we find more peace and equanimity within ourselves, we’re better positioned to extend attention toward another’s inner world.

Meaningful relationships are nourished through generously extending our attention toward others. Here are some things to consider:

  • How closely do you listen to people when they’re sharing something personal—hearing not just their words, but also the feelings beneath their words and stories?
  • How attuned are you to their felt experience? Do you notice your attention wandering? That’s natural. But can you notice that and bring yourself back?
  • Are you preoccupied with:
    • Preparing your response?
    • Finding things to criticize?
    • Turning the conversation toward yourself before really hearing them fully?
    • Trying so hard to find something helpful to say that you’re no longer present?
    • Feeling so badly that you don't know how to respond that you forget to just be present?

Again, everyone struggles with wandering attention, especially in the digital age, when attention spans have shortened, according to studies. We don’t have to listen perfectly. But generous listening involves being generous with ourselves as well—making allowance for the moments we’re not attentive and not being critical of ourselves,

Generous listening is not about fixing anyone’s problem or telling them what to do. It’s simply about extending our caring attention and presence toward someone who needs our caring. It's about listening with the ear of the heart, as St. Benedict put it.

What could be more generous and healing than opening our ears and heart to how another is experiencing life right now? Listening is the doorway to the connections we seek. It is the salve that soothes our disconnectedness and eases our isolation.

Listening offers the gift of being heard. When a person feels heard, they feel cared about, less alone, and more connected. By creating a climate in which others experience your generous attention, they are likely to appreciate you and come to care about you.

If you want to be heard, begin by listening to others. It's a powerful practice to give to others what we want to receive from them.

© John Amodeo

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