Listening as Healing
Shambhala Sun, December 2001
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
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."
Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy,
more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation is
the root of all suffering. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes this era
as a time of "radical brokenness" in all our relationships. Anywhere
we look in the global family we see disconnection and fear of one another.
As one example, how many teen-agers today, in many lands, state that
no one listens to them? They feel ignored and discounted, and in pain
they turn to each other to create their own subcultures. I've heard
two great teachers, Malidoma SomÄ from Burkino Fasso in West Africa,
and Parker Palmer from the United States, both make this comment: "You
can tell a culture is in trouble when its elders walk across the street
to avoid meeting its youth." It is impossible to create a healthy culture
if we refuse to meet, and if we refuse to listen. But if we meet, and
when we listen, we reweave the world into wholeness. And holiness.
This is an increasingly noisy era-people shout at each other in print,
at work, on TV. I believe the volume is directly related to our need
to be listened to. In public places, in the media, we reward the loudest
and most outrageous. People are literally clamoring for attention, and
they'll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder
until we figure out how to sit down and listen. Most of us would welcome
things quieting down. We can do our part to begin lowering the volume
by our own willingness to listen.
A school teacher told me how one day a sixteen year old became disruptive-shouting
angrily, threatening her verbally. She could have called the authorities-there
were laws to protect her from such abuse. Instead, she sat down, and
asked the student to talk to her. It took some time for him to quiet
down, as he was very agitated and kept pacing the room. But finally
he walked over to her and began talking about his life. She just listened.
No one had listened to him in a long time. Her attentive silence gave
him space to see himself, to hear himself. She didn't offer advice.
She couldn't figure out his life, and she didn't have to. He could do
it himself once she had listened.
I love the biblical passage: "Whenever two or more are gathered, I am
there." It describes for me the holiness of moments of real listening.
The health, wholeness, holiness of a new relationship forming. I have
a T-shirt from one conference that reads: "You can't hate someone whose
story you know." You don't have to like the story, or even the person
telling you their story. But listening creates a relationship. We move
closer to one another.
I would like to encourage us all to play our part in the great healing
that needs to occur everywhere. Think about whom you might approach--someone
you don't know, don't like, or whose manner of living is a mystery to
you. What would it take to begin a conversation with that person? Would
you be able to ask them for their opinion or explanation, and then sit
quietly to listen to their answer? Could you keep yourself from arguing,
or defending, or saying anything for a while? Could you encourage them
to just keep telling you their version of things, their side of the
It takes courage to begin this type of conversation. But listening,
rather than arguing, also is much easier. Once I'd practiced this new
role a few times, I found it quite enjoyable. And I got to learn things
I never would have known had I interrupted or advised.
I know now that neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned,
passionately presented arguments. Things change when I've created just
the slightest movement toward wholeness, moving closer to another through
my patient, willing listening.
note to editor: I'd like to add the following reference to the end of
this article. This column is adapted from Wheatley's new book: Turning
to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future,
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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