The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person
is to listen. Just listen.
Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other
is our attention.
When you listen generously to people,
they can hear the truth in themselves,
often for the first time.
– Rachel Naomi Remen
To truly listen from a place of deep presence is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another. We all yearn to be heard and seen – to be recognized for who we truly are. Listening from a place of deep respect for the humanity, wisdom, and experience we each carry calls forth both speaker and listeners to their full authentic presence.
In Transformational Presence work, we make a distinction between conversation and dialogue. Conversation is an exchange of information, opinions, and thoughts. We tell stories of what happened to us or make plans for the future; we talk about interests or people that we have in common. We share ideas and perhaps enjoy one another’s company.
When good communication skills are employed, conversation can be very effective in getting things done and moving things forward. It’s an essential part of our relationship to one another. Yet there are times when another level of awareness and understanding is called for. This is when shifting into dialogue can be helpful. This shift allows the communication to move beyond agendas, analyzing, and strategizing and into discovery and unfolding. Understanding the distinction between conversation and dialogue, and intentionally choosing which form will serve the best at any particular moment, can lead to important discoveries and breakthroughs.
Let’s look at this distinction a little deeper.
In everyday conversation, though we might think we are hearing what the other person is saying, too often our focus ends up being on what we are going to say next. We jump in with our own story to share how we can relate to what’s being said, or we want to make sure that our opinion is heard. As a result, we fail to truly listen to what others are saying. In fact, subconsciously, we’re often looking for validation or affirmation of our own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives rather than seeking new ideas, understanding, or awareness. Because we’ve been more focused on speaking than on listening, we leave the conversation with the same perspectives, opinions, and thoughts that we had when we entered.
While conversation is usually focused on telling stories from the past or anticipating the future, dialogue is focused in the present – what is arising in our thoughts, feelings, and emotions right here, right now. Dialogue has no agenda other than to explore meaning and to discover deeper insights and awareness. In dialogue, the words emerge from “what wants to be said.”
As we surrender to the dialogue process, it’s as if we transcend the present moment. Without even realizing it, we step out of linear time into an experience of eternal or simultaneous time – past, present, and future all seem to coexist in this moment. The process somehow invites us into our full, authentic presence. We recognize ourselves as part of a greater whole.
Dialogue is much more about listening than about speaking – listening beneath the words and the gestures to find the source of those words and inviting the source itself to speak more clearly and directly. Perhaps that source is a deep feeling or truth; perhaps it is a greater wisdom that is showing itself in that moment for the first time. In its highest form, dialogue is Consciousness having a dialogue with itself. We become a voice for that which wants to be expressed.
Several guidelines can help you learn how to use dialogue most effectively and develop your ability to listen deeply. First, “deep listening” goes beyond the conventional practice of “active listening.” In “deep listening,” the role of the listener is simply to be open, clear, and receptive, holding a space for the speaker to access his or her own well of deep awareness and wisdom.
The listener sits quietly and comfortably with the speaker and offers no verbal or physical responses, gestures, or acknowledgment. This is not a passive response. Holding the space in this way actually invites a much deeper level of engagement from the listener than if he was making sure that the speaker knows he is listening! In fact, when the listener remains quiet and consciously holds the space for the speaker with no outward response, the speaker usually senses the listener’s presence and support in a much more profound way.
Through this practice, the listener becomes aware of her habits around listening and reacting, many of which often keep her listening more on the surface. The speaker may also become aware of how he looks for validation or approval from the listener. Though this approach may feel uncomfortable for both speaker and listener at first, by surrendering to the process and trusting that a meaningful experience can unfold, new doors of awareness, discovery, and expression usually open. Every time we do this process in a workshop or training, participants find it one of the most powerful parts of our work together.
When using this practice in daily life and work, begin by setting up these simple guidelines. When you recognize it would be helpful to shift from conversation into dialogue, pause and invite the person or persons you are with into the dialogue approach. Simply make an agreement with all participants that, while listening, each person will be fully present with the speaker yet refrain from outward response. Not responding allows the speaker to express herself and be the voice for what wants to be said with no worry about reactions, judgment, agreement or disagreement, or interruption. In one-to-one dialogue, the listener waits until the speaker is finished speaking before responding. In a group setting, a talking stick or similar structure can be used to make it clear who is in the role of speaker while everyone else remains in the listener role.
As the listener, your role is to take in what the speaker is saying on as many levels as you are able. Listen for the essence behind the words so that you will be able to respond directly to the essence rather than just responding to the words or your interpretation of what was said.
Then when the speaker has finished for the moment, the listeners may respond, one at a time, to what they heard. This response is not a report of what was said or a retelling of the story, but rather a response to the essence and energy behind what was said. The listeners’ responses are not summary statements, but rather responses to meaning and essence. This process can take both speaker and listeners further into discovery as the dialogue continues.
Dialogue and deep listening are learned skills. For some of us, these skills come relatively easily, while for others, they may require a great deal of heart focus and self-management at first. However, the more you practice listening deeply and engaging in intentional dialogue with others, the easier it becomes. The benefits to all participants are access to greater wisdom, new insights, and deeper awareness. And on the most personal level, there is the gift of truly being heard.
In your conversations with others in the coming days and weeks, be aware of when a deeper level of communication wants to happen. Gently shift into this deeper way of listening and being present with one another and see what happens.
P.S. When you first begin practicing Dialogue and Deep Listening, having a specific structure to follow can be helpful. The exercise on page 89 of my latest book, Create A World That Works, will give you a place to start. A variation on this practice can also be very helpful when exploring a particular topic or project with a group. See pages 91 – 93 for a description of that process and a structure you can follow. The book is also available in digital format.
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