Hear and Now: What emerges in the space between words?

by Margaret Wheatley March 28, 2008

by Bob Stilger
First published in ascent magazine, 2008

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Reflections on the Language of Listening

Several years ago I was in discussion with Terry, a thirteen-year old girl and two other people at the Shambhala Authentic Leadership Institute. I have no memory of what question we were addressing, but Terry brought the story of her own invisibility in her family. She spoke of her deep pain of her parents not knowing who she was and their complete inability to listen to her story, her experience, her yearning.

We only had twenty minutes together in conversation. I’m sure I was looking for something wise and pithy to say, but mostly I listened. Sometimes Terry spoke harshly, each word a blunt instrument crashing down. At other times she spoke softly, sharing her inner bewilderment with us. They won’t let me talk. They ignore me. My dad actually put me on a curfew because he didn’t believe what I was saying. I just want to get out. Why can’t they see who I am? Why do they have to put me inside the little boxes of their own experience? In front of my eyes, I saw a passionate and courageous warrior emerge from her bewilderment. Mostly, she talked. We listened.

I saw a shift in her and it didn’t come from any advice or proffered wisdom. It came because we listened. For years I had been looking for new language. If only we could find the right words, I thought, we could talk about new ideas and frameworks to help us navigate these uncertain times. The experience with this young woman helped me begin to realize that we don’t need new words as much as we need new listening. We need a language of listening.

It’s not that I don’t love words. I do. I savor the way they can slip off a tongue and slide into an ear. I delight in their capacity to bring light into an ominous room. But too often they are used to codify, dominate and suppress life. Too often they are used as shields to surround our own doubt and as weapons to secure a position of seeming superiority. What are the words and the language that allow us to speak from the depth of our knowing with the passion of our souls? What is the language that can reach past our pettiness and into our separate and collective greatness?

As a social artist, community activist and sometimes academic, I think I ought to be able to put just about anything into a compelling phrase. I’ve lived a lot of my life in my mind: having conversations, reflecting on conversations, getting ready for conversations. I’ve spent countless hours thinking and wondering about experiences. I’ve always been ready to put ideas into my words. Yet, there are times when I have been most able to share my strongest convictions and deepest feelings by keeping my mouth shut.

At The Berkana Institute I have an opportunity to work with people from many cultures. We work with a network of leadership learning centres located in Pakistan, India, Greece, Senegal, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, the US and Canada. We think of this as a trans-local network because it is rooted in local experiences and local learning which are then connected across the globe. As a network, we are learning about the conditions that build resilient communities. We pay attention to new forms of leadership, deep conversation as the basis for all learning and decisions, and the physical work required to grow food, live healthily and create zero waste.

Many languages are present within this trans-local learning community— not just the obvious languages from different cultures, but the less visible languages that have arisen in a world characterized by the use of power over rather than the use of power with.

Listening as Healing

by Margaret Wheatley December 15, 2001

By Margaret Wheatley, 2001
First published in the Shambhala Sun

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You are reading this in December, but I have written this just a few days after September 11th, 2001. I have tried to imagine what the world feels like now, two months later, what else might have happened, what has changed, how each of us feels, if we are more divided or more connected. In the absence of a crystal ball, I look to the things I believe to be true in all times and for most situations. And so I choose to write about one of these enduring truths: great healing is available when we listen to each other.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.

I have seen the healing power of good listening so often that I wonder if you’ve noticed it also. There may have been a time when a friend was telling you such a painful story that you became speechless. You couldn’t think of anything to say, so you just sat there, listening closely, but not saying a word. And what was the result of your heartfelt silence, of your listening?

A young black South African woman taught some of my friends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell a story of true horror–of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix, to make it better, anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”

She taught many women that day that being listened to is enough. If we can speak our story, and know that others hear it, we are somehow healed by that. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, many of those who testified to the atrocities they had endured under apartheid would speak of being healed by their own testimony. They knew that many people were listening to their story. One young man who had been blinded when a policeman shot him in the face at close range said: “I feel what has brought my eyesight back is to come here and tell the story. I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story. But now it feels like I’ve got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story.”

Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone.

Our natural state is to be together. Though we keep moving away from each other, we haven’t lost the need to be in relationship. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story in order to connect. If no one listens, we tell it to ourselves and then we go mad. In the English language, the word for “health” comes from the same root as the word for “whole”. We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship. And “whole” is from the same root word as “holy.”