Low Bandwidth Version
The Zen of Listening
by Rebecca Z. Shafir, M.A. CCC
One of the main reasons we listen poorly is because our internal noise levels
are so turbulent and obtrusive that they mask most of what others are saying.
Only bits and pieces of their message survive the barrage of our mental
interference. Just as we have learned to manage external interference by tuning
out, it has become somewhat of a challenge to tune in deeply enough to the
messages we need to listen to -- those of family, coworkers, and customers.
Misunderstanding, not being heard, and missing key information due to poor
listening are at the crux of societal ills.
Traditional approaches to listening improvement are usually ineffective
because they come from a point of view of altering surface features instead of
reshaping the foundation. If we are to end the suffering associated with not
listening, we need to dig deeper to get to the source so change can take place.
Many self-help books on personal relationships, negotiation, sales, and
customer service tell us that good listening is essential to success in our
personal and professional lives, but they do not explain how to listen. The
available how-to approaches to better listening give you lists of new ways to
behave, as if by magic you master techniques and stick with them. Just like
after most self-improvement courses, you may try to force new behaviors for a
few days, but gradually, because there is no foundation for these changes, your
old tendencies to tune people out and repeat mistakes creep back.
As a speech/language pathologist for twenty years, I worked with adults with
impaired ability to communicate due to stroke, head/neck cancer, head injuries,
or degenerative diseases. By my late thirties, I was starting to show the
classic signs of burnout. Even my relationships with family were suffering.
External amusements such as trendy activities, shopping, money-making endeavors,
and competitive sports with the objective of winning became appealing to me. I
had become vulnerable to impulsivity, excessive goal setting, accumulation of
material things, competitiveness in sports, and advising my siblings instead of
just being a good sister -- attitudes and behaviors that disconnected me from
myself and others. Despite all these self-inflating intentions, there I lay
exhausted and unfulfilled after a day of trying to make myself a better person.
Seeking out new career opportunities held promise as a cure for my general
malaise, but I had reservations. As many of you have already experienced,
financial constraints tempered my impulse to make drastic changes. Instead, my
intuition advised me to take a deeper look into myself and the way I related to
others before abandoning a life's work for which my talent and personality were
well suited. A major rethinking was necessary. I decided that it was worth going
on a personal archeological dig to figure out what to do about my situation.
When I was a college student in the seventies, Transcendental Meditation had
become a vehicle of self-discovery and a discipline that brought welcome clarity
to eighteen credit hours of graduate work and two part-time jobs. Now, once
again I began daily meditation. This enabled me to calm my mind and identify the
inner obstacles that kept me from working with the system instead of against it.
During this renewal phase, I met my husband, Sasha. Aside from his job as a
computer engineer, he was a third-degree black-belt martial arts instructor.
Watching him, his students, and other instructors practicing various martial
arts, I was mesmerized by their concentration and physical control. I admired
their balanced state of mind and lack of self-consciousness in daily situations.
These people were not monks or part of some spiritual cult, nor was their
discipline violent or destructive. They were regular people, who owned
businesses or were leaders in their communities. They too faced the same threats
of layoff, crazy work schedules, and limited budgets, yet they were at peace
with change and used their resources to find creative solutions.
After getting to know these people better, I asked myself, Is the physical
exertion of karate or kung fu the source of this concentration and serenity of
spirit? Or is it the focus on quality of movement that improves the ability to
attend completely and joyfully to the task at hand? I believed it was the
latter, since I had also observed this mind-body balance in artists, musicians,
surgeons, and athletes. While painting, playing, dissecting, or diving, they
were all willfully caught in the flow of their activities.
Looking back over the years, I recalled several such exhilarating periods of
concentrated energy prior to my current burnout period. Many were memorable
listening situations. I remember in college being totally absorbed physically
and mentally in certain lectures, during medical rounds in my hospital training,
or while being critiqued by someone whose opinion I highly valued. I recalled
these moments of physical and mental readiness as a relaxed, balanced state, a
connectedness between my mind and body. My next question was, What if this
zeal for quality and depth of concentration could be applied to one of our
greatest needs, a gift so little used and so often taken for granted -- the
ability to listen?
In my search to regain and perpetuate this feeling of connectedness, I
enrolled in a martial arts class and studied everything I could find about the
mind-body relationship. By getting to know myself painfully through the eyes of
my instructors, my reasons for becoming disconnected from my world were made
clear. I decided to start over fresh, not by focusing on the results or the
outcome of my actions, but with the prospect of being in the moment and
discovering the quality in every interaction.
I started to apply this new awareness to what occupied the bulk of my day --
my work as a therapist. First, during this period of self-awareness, I noticed
that when I interacted with patients and coworkers, I became distracted by my
own agenda. Assumptions and periods of selective listening led me to miss
I had become closed within the walls of my routine protocols. In my eagerness
to treat the patient, I found myself lecturing patients and their families much
too often and asking way too many questions. If they did not comply with my
recommendations or the advice of their physicians, I judged them quickly,
dismissing their reasons for not following through. I could see how much time
was wasted in reinforcing practice, re-explaining, and revising treatment plans.
What was at the heart of all this redoing? By not fully listening to the patient
or to my own spoken words, I was actually making more work for myself and
Because of my egocentric way of trying to help my patients, it was no wonder
why I, and so many others, left the office exhausted and frustrated most days. I
remembered the words of a favorite professor in graduate school that pointed to
the importance of listening in a learning situation: "If you do not get to
know where that patient is coming from (his background, expectations, etc.) you
cannot understand him, and he will not trust your advice."
I have had the pleasure of working with many physicians who have taught me
the true meaning of the expression "bedside manner". With other
doctors, however, I have seen how failure to listen to the patient adversely
affects the accuracy of the diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Too often the
patient is not given a chance to mention what's on his mind, to share his
insight into his health problem. Just as often, due to various communication
barriers, a patient does not understand his doctor's explanation of his illness.
Not only good medical practice, but any successful business requires optimal
listening on both sides of the table. In all industries and, most importantly,
in the home, a good bedside manner is the best medicine for solving disputes and
getting along with others. Whether we are salespeople, parents, or provide some
service, people come to us in need. Quite often they require assistance or are
in distress, very much like someone who is ill or dying. They look to trust us
in the same way that a patient looks to trust the judgment of a physician. We
can all benefit from improving our bedside manner. It does not necessarily mean
taking more time, but rather more willingness to see a situation through the
eyes of the speaker. How can we achieve a positive outcome with each person we
come in contact with if our scope is narrowed by self-interest?
From a spiritual and social point of view, listening can be a powerful tool
of change. Schoolteachers and counselors, prior to taking my listening class,
report their jobs are getting more stressful because they cannot handle the
listening needs of their students and clients. If children are not heard by
their parents, if their emotional concerns are not taken seriously, they become
behavioral problems at home and in the classroom. Hours of TV and video games
splinter whatever remains of attention and concentration for schoolwork, and
grades suffer. A lack of proper listening role models may lead to frustration,
violent outbursts, and loss of self-control. Poor self-esteem cultivated over
time leads to substandard performance in the workplace and unhappy family
relationships as the ravages of poor listening are handed down to the next
When a person is given a chance to tell his views without the threat of
judgment or advice, even if his listener does not agree, that is the first step
toward creating good feelings. A sense of openness on both sides allows for
discussion and problem solving. Self-esteem grows from the respect that comes
from being heard. People are better able to attend to school lessons, projects,
and the responsibilities of the workplace when basic emotional needs, like being
understood, have been met. Henry David Thoreau said, "The greatest
compliment that was ever paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought,
and attended to my answer." When confidence grows, we are better able to
discover our potential and positively influence others. Mindful listening has
the power to change the direction of our lives and those we come in contact with
Listening is also a healthy activity. Studies show that when we listen, heart
rate and oxygen consumption are reduced and blood pressure decreases. Contact
with others promotes well-being and self-expression, both necessary for good
physical health. By being good listeners, therefore, we promote the good health
of others by allowing them to reduce their stress and empowering them to solve
their own dilemmas. An empathetic listener provides helpful feedback that makes
the speaker feel valued. This is a significant gift in a world where the human
touch is a rare commodity.
Many of us would like to see an end to discrimination of all kinds, happier
families, and a safer, more harmonious future for our children. But how can we
as individuals make a difference? We can begin by learning to listen in a
Listening is the first step in making people feel valued. Mindful listening
allows us to do more than take in people's words; it helps us better understand
the how and why of their views. When understanding occurs, a sense of calm is
achieved on both sides, even if no point of agreement is reached. From
understanding, respect and trust for one another are possible; we are free to
open our minds and widen the scope of potential solutions. Listening is also the
first step in any negotiation, whether it means getting your teenager to clean
the garage or arranging a cease-fire in the Middle East.
On New Year's Eve 1999, Larry King, on his nightly TV talk show, invited
eminent spiritual leaders to share their hopes for the Third Millennium. The
Dalai Lama looks to the twenty-first century as the "century of
dialogue". Evangelist Billy Graham claims that "world peace can come
only from the human heart. Something has to happen inside of man to change our
How do we start changing our attitudes? By listening in a mindful way and
becoming aware of what habits we can change today and what habits need to change
over time. Sometimes all it takes is someone or something to come our way to
make us stop and think about the need to be heard. By taking the ideas in this
book to heart, not only will you accomplish more through communicating
effectively, but you can begin to make a daily personal contribution to world
This article is excerpted from The Zen of Listening, ©2000, by
Rebecca Z. Shafir. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Quest Books, The
Theosophical Publishing House. http://www.theosophical.org
of this book.
About the Author
REBECCA Z. SHAFIR, M.A., CCC, is a certified speech/language pathologist at
the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. A ten-year student of Zen, she teaches
communication workshops nationwide and has coached media personalities and
political candidates since 1980. She presents a variety of programs ranging from
keynote addresses to weeklong seminars tailored to meet the individual needs of
corporations, healthcare institutions, professional associations, universities,
and the general public. For more information or to share your experiences with
mindful listening, send your letters to: Rebecca Z. Shafir P.O. Box 190
Winchester, MA 01890. Visit her website: www.mindfulcommunication.com
Printer Friendly Page