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The Art of Listening

Is it something that has been totally lost in the haste of modern life, this endearing art of listening? Do all the things we intend to deal with really make us so ‘time poor’ that we can no longer simply listen? Everywhere we hear speakers who make many words. But where are the listeners? How seldom is it heard that someone has ‘lent his ear’ to another, who has actually paid attention to what someone else is saying.

By Ishiju Ka

Now consider this illustration: I lend my ear to you, my fellow human being, who has come to me with a question, a request or just the desire to speak with someone in order to deal with or deepen an experience. I cannot give it to you. When you have finished, I must have it back. I need it again for myself, because it is a part of me. But I can give you ‘my attention’, my ability to listen to you. I do not lose it thereby. It renews itself with the next appeal.

However, ‘lending one’s ear’ is actually a different matter. Do we actually realise that we have to surrender something, to separate ourselves from something we own when a petitioner approaches us? That we, the ones called upon, must make a sacrifice, in order to pave a way that brings us together? It must not just be something marginal or insignificant that we hardly notice if it is gone; no, it must be something indispensable that we offer to the other person as a loan. Our counterpart then immediately recognises that we take him seriously, and we gain his trust. Yes, we can say: a bridge has been built thereby, which is passable in both directions.

What treasures are contained in the vocabulary of our language! It always shows us ways to go if we pay attention to its subtleties.

To hearken, to pay attention – yes, that is the right term. Paying attention is more than just hearing, also more than merely noting what is being said. There is an endeavour involved, an inner movement. Hearing is a perception of tones, words or noises. But in paying attention, the door to the soul door is wide open, and the soul is ready to receive the impulses reaching out to it. A deep inner calm is necessary, a distancing from the oh-so-important self with all its concerns, be they great or small. Otherwise we may ‘overhear’ the quiet footsteps approaching.

We can hear a thunderstorm, but we cannot perceive the subtleties because the sound is too loud. We perceive it as an event. However, we should pay attention to the soft voice of our conscience, whose subtle prompting admonishes, warns and helps us. And those who master this art, which can also be called the art of ‘stepping back’ or retreating into one’s self, driven back upon oneself, for example, in experiencing true humility, may well be able to capture and absorb sounds and messages from distant worlds.

‘Hear me, Lord, in my great distress!’ – this is how the human being on earth implores his God in his earthly affliction. And he is full of hope that his petition will not only be heard but will be granted and fulfilled. We too can respond to a fellow human being in a similar way. We too can take his distress to our hearts so that we are able to receive the power to help him. If we give him our full attention, ‘lend our ear’ to him, then we have separated ourselves from anything which may have stood between us and our willingness to help.

It is often hard for us to be silent and find the time for a fellow human being. He comes to us in an opportune moment. Is there not a mountain of work waiting for us right now? How is it then that very busy people often have the time to listen to a supplicant? That they are always ‘there’ for a fellow human being? Precisely because they value their own time, they manage it in such a way that there is always a bit left to devote to others. They ‘make the most’ of their time, and the ‘interest’ they earn in doing so benefits not only the petitioner but also themselves and their surroundings.

‘Here I am, you have my ear!’ – thus speaks someone who has learned the art of listening. It is as if he has become a part of the other for a short time. For is the supplicant now not in possession of the listener’s ear? That this cannot mean the outer ear is obvious, but we also have finer inner ears and eyes as well. We forget that so easily because the world around us is so deafening. But with these inner ears and eyes we can unlock completely different, much deeper areas of soul, can listen into them and illuminate them. They can serve as key to open a locked heart chamber or to clear away a barrier.

The inner ear is crucial. It is this that should open up in conversation with a fellow human being who speaks to us either timidly or confidently, with inhibition or quite openly. I hear what he says, I absorb it deeply, with heart and mind. At the same time, however, I listen to the soft undertones and nuances – to what remains unspoken. And there often lies the real issue, perhaps unconscious or even unknown to the speaker himself. If we respond to this unrecognised, unknown issue, then we would really be masters of the art of listening. We thereby find the core from which to proceed, the starting point. Simply listening is not an art even though it takes a lot of effort to free oneself inwardly for the other person.

Our counterpart feels exactly whether he has our undivided attention or if we merely let his words rush by our outer ear without making an impression, our thoughts being elsewhere. Such behaviour is an insult to the other person, a disregard of his human dignity. It is not an exaggeration to say this. Everybody knows the commandment: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ – but in this case we love only our own self and pander to our live of ease. In so doing, we are violating the fundamental law of life, the commandment of love.

‘I lend you my ear, you have my undivided attention’ – that is how it should be! Warmth rises in these words, because they are a bridge of understanding and love, on which we can meet. We should not listen with ‘half an ear’, with our thoughts being elsewhere, because that only builds shaky bridges that quickly collapse again. No, we have to be ‘all ears’ if we want to build viable bridges.

Is not there a lack of bridges of trust from human being to human being and from nation to nation everywhere on earth? Now then – let us become bridge builders by practising the art of listening!

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