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3 Steps to Listening with Compassion

communication listening thich nat hanh
Man using compassionate listening to a woman who appears angry


By John Millen

I believe listening is the most important and powerful of all communication skills.

In fact, if you think carefully you’ll find that most communication problems stem from poor listening in our relationships at work, and at home. 

That’s why I teach listening skills first in my training and keynotes. I emphasize the need for empathetic listening, seeking to understand the experience and meaning of others beyond their words.

But there’s an even deeper level of listening we might strive for, listening with compassion. This need is brought to light by one of my favorite authors, Thich Nat Hanh, who passed away in January at the age of 95.  

Peaceful change 

He was a Buddhist Monk who lived through the atrocities of war in Viet Nam, was exiled and became a world leader for peaceful change. In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Hahn advocated deep listening as a nonviolent solution to conflict. In his book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, he writes of the power of deep listening and loving speech.

I’ve slightly edited this excerpt and added the subheads. I’ve left his unique language, viewpoint and tone for your enjoyment.  

Though published in 2012, Hahn’s words apply perfectly to our world of war, pandemic, social shouting and political polarization. 

Our need for compassion

When communication is cut off, we suffer. When no one listens to us, we are like bombs ready to explode.

Compassionate listening brings about healing. Sometimes only ten minutes of listening daily can transform us and bring a smile back to our lips.

Many of us have lost our capacity for listening and using loving speech in our families.

It may be that no one is capable of listening to anyone else so we feel very lonely within our own families. 

We go to a therapist hoping that she will be able to listen to us but many therapists also have deep suffering within. Sometimes they cannot listen as deeply as they’d like. 

How to be a compassionate listener

So if we really love someone we need to train ourselves to be deep listeners. We also need to train ourselves to use loving speech. 

We have lost our capacity to say things calmly. We get irritated too easily. Every time we open our mouths our speech is sour or bitter. We have lost our ability to speak with kindness. Without this ability we cannot succeed in restoring harmony, love and happiness….

You have to practice breathing mindfully in and out so that compassion always stays with you. 

1. Listen without judgment 

Do you listen without giving advice or passing judgment? 

You can say to yourself about the other person “I am listening to him just because I want to relieve his suffering.” This is called compassionate listening. 

You have to listen in such a way that compassion remains with you the whole time you're listening. That is the art. 

2. Control your anger

If halfway through listening anger or irritation comes up and you cannot listen deeply anymore, you have to practice in such a way that…you can breathe in and out mindfully and continue to hold compassion within you. 

No matter what the other person says, even if there's a lot of injustice in his way of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames you, you continue to sit very quietly breathing in and out.

3. Restore your capacity 

If you're not in good shape, if you don't feel that you can go on listening in this way, let the other person know. Ask your friend, “dear one, can we continue in a few days? I need to renew myself so I can listen to you in the best way I can.” 

Practice more walking meditation, more mindful breathing and sitting meditation to restore your capacity for compassionate listening.

I know this might sound quaint or naive in our distracted, often negative and nasty world, but change happens one person at a time.

Positive change starts in small encounters for each of us. As Hanh said often during his life, “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.”

When you encounter challenging communication this week, try being your better self, try listening with compassion.

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Happy listening!

John Millen

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