Why this is a world-level issue, as well as personal.
Mindful listening is a huge part of mindfulness practice, yet is probably the least written about. We teach it as part of our mindfulness course for the Plum Village tradition, called Be Calm Be Happy. As we teach the course that is specifically for people with PTSD and Neuro-divergency, it is a critical teaching point.
I must declare here that I am a Quaker as well as a Buddhist.
Mindful listening is intrinsic to both traditions, and this skill is implemented in both sets of organisations engaged in massive amounts of peace work.
Mindful listening, or you can call it deep listening, really matters, for the following reasons .
It works to create peace and harmony.
It works to promote openness and understanding
It works to create clarity
It breaks down misunderstandings and confusion
It ends antagonism based on lack of mutual respect or recognition
For instance the Northern Ireland peace process, that ended a decades long guerilla war between the Irish and the English, might have been carried out by politicians who took all the credit. But the ground work was all done by Quakers in Belfast, and the meetings were all held in the Quaker meeting house, supervised by experienced Quaker intermediaries.
Similarly, Quakers provide monitoring personnel for the checkpoints between Palestinian and Israeli settlements to ensure peace is kept at all times and no one is subject to inappropriate treatment on either side.
Plum Village in France has hosted several retreats which brought together young Israelis and Palestinians on neutral ground, so they could finally listen to each other and understand they were all suffering. They left this retreat committed to speaking up for each other in their conflicted homelands, and understanding there was a solution that supported all their needs equally, but sadly no one would agree on it.
In each of these situations, people were brought together from opposing sides and that was mediated by those with skills in deep listening.
So what is deep listening? It has several qualities.
It listens intently to what people are saying. It relates to their world paradigm which underpins their perception. It recognises the story of their life that had brought them to this place. It places the listener and their own agendas out of the picture and pays full attention to what is being said.
Mindful/deep listening is a sign of profound emotional literacy. In fact it can only occur when the listener is profoundly emotionally literate, when the listener can take themself out of the picture for enough time to actually hear the whole story of what is being said. So often people are just chatting away but they have no idea how much they are giving away of themselves and their internal paradigms and stories. Being able to read these underlying parts of the exchange without judgment, without personal reaction, without impatience to respond from your own position, takes some training and effort. This is what is needed.
Deep Listening and Politics
Just imagine if the Israeli and Palestinian governments were able to sit down and listen deeply to the other points of view in the political realms. The current crisis would not exist. Even the conditions which led to it would have been resolved and thus there would be no reason to fight. Instead, they oppose each other and fail to understand the position of the other, fail to hear the sadness and confusion in both peoples that arises from the terrible experiences they have in their lives on a day-to-day basis.
This applies to government within countries too. So many organisations fight and defend the rights of the vulnerable, and show again and again how cruel some of our political systems are. Those politicians pay lip service to the demands of those NGO’s but fail to actually listen and often actively block the people who put it plainly, and irrefutably, why certain regulations should be changed, or laws written that protect the vulnerable.
People in power do not listen deeply. It is not in their personal interests to do so because if they did they might have to live with their consciences, but if they don’t hear the actual words then they can pretend not to know, to make the problem appear invisible and to go away. I haven’t met that many MP’s but of those I have met, only two appeared to be good listeners. The others had clearly closed preconceptions written right across their faces and I could see their minds were blocked. It exuded from every part of their body language and facial expressions. In one case an MP even retreated from me because he knew he could not out-argue my points at a public protest about sewage in our oceans, rivers, and local beaches. It was a public meeting on a beach and he disappeared when I challenged him on points he could not wriggle out of.
To listen without an agenda of your own means to have the ability to clear your own mind of your own opinions, just for now. This does not mean dropping your values, just opinions. Some people confuse these two but they are not the same. If we can open our minds to the idea that everyone is doing their best given what they understand, and to have compassion for their lack of emotional literacy, it helps to hear them as an individual human. These MP’s I am thinking of are just that too, and this is how I view them as people. I listen to their fear and vulnerability, their lack of deep self-worth which means they are on a treadmill of public approval and social status that matters to them. I understand this treadmill because I was placed on it by my childhood too. I have also seen how unnecessary it is, for all of us.
It is understanding the presence of this backstory which allows us to listen to them deeply, and by doing so, just possibly, they will feel less judged and threatened and be able to open their minds to what is beyond their internal paradigm.
What is an internal paradigm?
An internal paradigm is constructed individually for each and everyone of us. It is more or less the story of our life and how life works in and around us. We feel comfortable with those who echo a similar paradigm back to us, thus confirming our point of view is correct, and we distance ourselves from those who conflict with our paradigm because they challenge our sense of rightness and security in our own understanding of that world. A personal paradigm is a personal reality. It is built from every single experience and influence we have ever had, and either embraced or rejected. It is what can make us strong or can leave us deeply weakened. It underpins our beliefs, our translations of experiences. It is the frame through which we view life. It outlines our personal stories and gives them a sense of fitting into the rest of the picture.
Reframing is a technique often used in therapy to help someone understand their story from a different position. It is a tool I use in own my writing and my thinking. It is how I survived my own childhood which was filled with narcissism violence and gaslighting until I didn’t know up from down. By exploring my own story from a distance, as if in a gallery of options, I was able to see a lot of other options for that story. Those options gave me a right to be happy and sane, and I took it. But I never lost the skill of reframing new experiences too. I am able to be grateful for that childhood because I could use it positively for myself to empower myself with this kind of insight.
Reframing your life story can be the most empowering strategy for personal growth. It also massively increases emotional literacy and intelligence.
Deep listening means coming to the conversation without your own agenda. Understanding your agenda in the first place is key, then recognising it is only your perspective, not the whole story is second. Once you are there you can decide to close your mind to alternatives or to keep it open. That choice is based on how open and emotionally literate you really are, or how biased and narrow-minded you are. The latter never want to hear another option for exploring a particular issue. They are too convinced of their own rightness and too insecure to question it.
Active deep listening in reconciliation work starts with this open mind and emotional skillset. Then one must listen to the story from each party and hear what matters to them. What is their pain and suffering? What is their anger and confusion? Let them know you have heard them and acknowledge the validity of their perspective. Give compassionate responses and encourage their desire for positive outcomes. Gain their trust that you are with them. Do this for both parties, separately.
Work out what they have in common. The monastic who told me about the Israeli /Palestinian work in Plum Village kept both sides quite apart for the first few days. When they were first put into a space together, they more or less all refused to sit and had to be encouraged to stay and asked simply to listen with their hearts as they had been shown. One or two brave individuals started to share what this conflict meant to them and their families, their sorrow and suffering, their fear and loss. Thich Nhat Hanh always wants to work with young people because their minds are still malleable, even in these situations of such strong paradigms of hostility towards each other. They had been taught to hate and or fear each other. What they heard though was the same thing. Both sides felt the same way about the fear in their lives. This woke them up to the shared experience of suffering that was each caused by the other one, and thus both sides could just stop. By the end of the retreat, the young people were mixing freely and promising to respect each other in future. That work continues quietly in the background, unspoken about in the media, not deemed newsworthy.
Once we can listen and open to each other’s stories, we can start to connect with what we have in common and focus on that instead of the differences. What we have in common is usually far greater than the differences. I am always reminded of Shylock’s speech of shared humanity, written by Shakespeare in response to the racism and xenophobia in his own time towards refugees and migrants in London. ‘If you prick me do I not also bleed?’
Most conflicts pivot on this point, the differences have been the focus, not the similarities. We are all humans and all deserve a chance at a good healthy life. Our differences are minor. It may be social status, financial, colour of skin, religion, geography etc. None of this matters compared to our shared humanity and our shared resource of our home planet and all else that dwells on her, and on which we depend for our own lives. We inter-are with all else that exists, plants to create atmosphere, life and death cycles to create growth and food supplies, soil in which all can grow etc.
Deep listening takes all this into account, recognises all these levels of truth and challenges us to consider our own closed minds and to open them with love and a clear vision of what matters in life. Then perhaps we can all learn to live in harmony with everything else. Here’s to hope.