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Posted Monday February, 22nd 2021

The Gift of Deep Listening

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“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” ―Thich Nhat Hanh

When I was a child, I told my mother all manner of things—what I thought about the color green, the dream I had about the big volcano, my most outlandish ideas (including the plan to build a hot air balloon with my best friend to circumnavigate the globe together). Often, when something was important to me—even if ridiculous from an adult’s perspective—she would pause whatever she was doing, we’d sit on the kitchen stools, and she would listen to what I had to say. Her presence was full and felt, notable in what was absent: She didn’t interrupt, correct, lecture, or give advice. She allowed long silences while I gathered myself. Occasionally she took notes and gave them to me in case I wanted to think over things later. Sometimes she asked questions or reflected back something I said. But mostly, she listened.

As an adult, I recognized my mother’s quiet attention for what it was: a gift. It gave me a lasting capacity to trust others and to feel confident in my own voice, and it also nourished a thirst to hear others’ views—a curiosity about their stories. And if I had to name what it was she was doing, I would call it deep listening.

Deep listening goes by many names in many cultures, including contemplative spiritual traditions and indigenous cultures around the world. In Aboriginal Australian communities, deep listening is sometimes called dadirri. Dr. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal writer and elder, explains: “Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness… It is something like what you call ‘contemplation.’”1 According to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less.”2 Central to these ways of defining deep listening is a sense of presence, inner stillness, openness, and mindful attention to what the other communicates in their body, speech, and silence.

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