Listening isn’t easy. There is so much more to it than allowing sound waves to tickle their way into your ears. How can we become better listeners? In reflecting on this question, I have the following three suggestions:
1. A Gentle Silence is Golden
Baha’u’llah says that “the tongue is a smoldering fire and excess of speech a deadly poison.”1 I have grappled with these striking and powerful words for a long time but I know it to be true from all those times I found myself in conversation just itching to put forward my ideas and ignoring what others were saying. My excess of speech consumed me and deafened me and I am slowly learning that the way to be a better listener is to simply. Stop. Talking. Howard Colby Ives, an early Baha’i, describes this feeling perfectly and he explains how Abdu’l-Baha was the perfect listener. Ives writes:
How differently Abdu’l-Baha met the questioner, the conversationalist, the occasion: To the questioner He responded first with silence — an outward silence. His encouragement always was that the other should speak and He listen. There was never that eager tenseness so often met showing the most plainly that the listener has the pat answer ready the moment he should have a chance to utter it.
[…] And when, under His encouraging sympathy, the interviewer became emptied of his words, there followed a brief interval of silence. There was no instant and complete outpouring of explanation and advice. He sometimes closed His eyes a moment as if He sought guidance from above himself; sometimes sat and searched the questioner’s soul with a loving, comprehending smile that melted the heart.2
I think it’s important to emphasize that the Abdu’l-Baha’s silence was gentle and encouraging. It invited the person to speak until they said everything in their heart. It wasn’t awkward, or condescending, nor was it so empty that the person thought they hadn’t been heard at all. It was warm and welcoming.
As I grow older, I realize more and more something painfully obvious: what someone is saying to me often has very little to do with the words coming out of their mouth. I’m a literary person and I take words very seriously but most often we communicate more with our body language and our tone than with our choice of words. In a heated discussion, I have found it helpful (albeit difficult!) to swallow the opinion I desperately want to put forth, and ask myself “what am I really being told?” It then becomes clearer that the person I’m speaking to is hurt, or angry, or upset, or hungry and expressing empathy boils away all the other issues and takes the conversation to its core. Ives recounts how Abdu’l-Baha was an empathetic listener:
I have heard certain people described as “good listeners”, but never have I imagined such a “listener” as Abdu’l-Baha. It was more than a sympathetic absorption of what the ear received. It was as though the two individualities became one; as if He so closely identified Himself with the one speaking that a merging of spirits occurred which made a verbal response almost unnecessary, superfluous. As I write, the words of Baha’u’llah recur to me: “When the sincere servant calls to Me in prayer I become the very ear with which He hearest My reply.” That was just it! Abdu’l-Baha seemed to listen with my ears.3
I also love this delightful vignette that demonstrates the Master’s empathy towards all he listened to, regardless of age or the gravity of their concerns:
It was observed how He listened so attentively one day to a young granddaughter of His – He took her troubles seriously. Though she was only about two years old, she chanted a Tablet in His presence. If a word failed her, He “gently” chanted it. She won from His a glorious smile for her effort, while He sat in the corner of the divan drinking tea.4
Perhaps the most powerful way to empathize with someone is to remember that we are all of God. Consider this short story:
Once Abdu’l-Baha was asked, “Why do all the guests who visit you come away with shining countenances?”
He said with a beautiful smile: “I cannot tell you, but in all those upon whom I look, I see only my Father’s Face.”5
3. Make Opportunities for Listening
We often ask others how they are doing but do we really want, or expect to hear, a heartfelt answer? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why home visits are so important; they give us an honest opportunity to truly ask each other how we are doing. In the asking of questions and the listening of answers comes friendship. And by elevating the conversation, we elevate the questions we ask of one another, and the impact we have of listening to one another.
Truly listening requires flexing spiritual muscles, but the results can change lives. The better we become at listening, the better we will become at perceiving receptivity. Baha’u’llah says:
What “oppression” is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?6
By truly listening, we can humbly offer Baha’i teachings when someone is seeking it, and this will heal the world. Abdu’l-Baha said:
O ye friends of God! True friends are even as skilled physicians, and the Teachings of God are as healing balm, a medicine for the conscience of man. They clear the head, so that a man can breathe them in and delight in their sweet fragrance. They waken those who sleep. They bring awareness to the unheeding, and a portion to the outcast, and to the hopeless, hope.”7