We human beings are social creatures! The same way that waves move through the ocean, we are conductors of energy that flow through our bodies, actions, and words. We have the ability to shape that energy or be shaped by it as it passes through us in social situations. It can be a delicate balance – knowing how to be present, understanding, and compassionate for each other without getting caught in the negative undertow as we surf through life’s challenges. Developing the skill of compassionate listening can greatly accelerate spiritual growth for yourself and your community.
We all know what it is like to participate in a bitching session where we vent about our frustrations with friends about the world or about other people. This can have the effect of releasing built up pressure which feels good in the moment but rarely changes underlying patterns. A compassionate listener hears and feels the other’s struggle but must also hold a vision for resolving the underlying issue. This does not mean that you are eager to tell the other person what they need to do (as that can be annoying) but rather, ask the right questions. Examples of this type of inquiry can look like this:
Wow, that sounds really miserable (acknowledge the underlying emotion). What do you think you need to do to shift this pattern?
This sounds like a similar issue that you were having a few weeks ago in another situation. How do you think this relates to a lesson that you are trying to learn in your life?
Posing the right question to others helps them to engage their own problem-solving abilities. Posing the right question to yourself is equally as powerful. I often ask myself, “How can I show up in the best way, get straight to the heart of the issue, and evolve the situation?” Keeping our eyes on the prize we can remind each other that all of life’s setbacks are actually opportunities to get us further down the path of spiritual growth.
Compassionate listening becomes unhealthy gossip when we amplify the other person’s frustration or validate their belief that they are a victim of a given situation. We hurt ourselves and the other person when we are not able to have a healthy boundary and we absorb the other person’s hurt or the other person’s story as if it is our own.
Let’s say that you are having trouble with a mutual friend and you are really mad at them. The compassionate listener can respond in a constructive way that diffuses the energy while the gossiper will add their own frustration and anxiety to the story, thus increasing the energy. This shows how each of us hold a lot of power: that we can consciously choose to shape and transform the energy as it passes through us, or to unconsciously be shaped by the energy. Remember, energy is like waves and we are the ocean…
Here are two examples, see if you can differentiate between gossip and compassionate listening:
Yeah, I hear you. He/She really pisses me off too but I know that they have been going through a lot lately. They probably aren’t even aware of how they are acting. Do you think they are open to hearing how you feel about the situation? What can you learn from this?
What a jerk! I never really liked them anyhow. They better hope they don’t see me around town coz I’m gonna give them a piece of my mind if I see them. I can’t believe they did that to you!
In the second response above, the listener has taken on the animosity as if it is their own and now it has become amplified. This rarely resolves the initial problem or helps anyone gain self-awareness. It causes people to be divided, defensive, and close doors.
Whereas, in the first response above a compassionate listener encourages self-reflection and compassion for all parties. This style of listening also embodies the wisdom that communicating directly with the person who has offended you is the only way to resolve the energy. Of course, this only works if the other person is open to hearing your feelings and if you have done the self-reflection to be clear enough to communicate with compassion. This is how we make interpersonal problems opportunities for growth.
Non Violent Communication (NVC) is probably one of the best models I have seen for dissecting complex social issues, distilling them to their root cause, and creating resolve. Have you ever been really mad at someone and then later learned something about where they were coming from that instantly caused you to shift from being angry to compassionate? Knowing how to give yourself and others the space needed to make mistakes and learn from them is key to evolving social relations.
Forgiveness and understanding are the result of seeing the world from this place. This is the place of the compassionate listener. If anyone has ever done this for you then you know just how powerful it is. With a little bit of practice you can do this for the people around you also. This is how we take the energy that is swirling around our community and shape it in a constructive way that supports all of us in evolving to our highest expression. Give it a try and let us know what you learn!