September 28, 2011

On having two ears and one mouth

Brenda Ueland, Writer, 1891-1985

I have a wonderful Tibetan friend. One day he found himself talking too much. He said: As a child my father used to tell me that we have two ears and one mouth, and that there is a reason for this anatomic constellation. I am glad I remembered him now; I will stop talking. 

It seems to be a universal observation. Even Epictetus made a similar comment.

So today I want to share some paragraphs from the best piece I have ever read on the art of listening. The Norwegian-American writer and editor Brenda Ueland wrote a 5-page essay called Tell Me More - On The Fine Art of Listening.  Here I serve you a few pieces of it:

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don't listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all - which is so important too - to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.
This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies. Well, this is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.

Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself. 
So it is with people who have not been listened to in the right way — with affection and a kind of jolly excitement. Their creative fountain has been blocked. Only superficial talk comes out — what is prissy or gushing or merely nervous. No one has called out of them, by wonderful listening, what is true and alive. 
Now, how to listen? It's harder than you think. I don't believe in critical listening, for that only puts a person in a straitjacket of hesitancy. He begins to choose his words solemnly or primly. His little inner fountain cannot spring. Critical listeners dry you up. But creative listeners are those who want you to be recklessly yourself, even at your very worst, even vituperative, bad-tempered. They are laughing and just delighted with any manifestation of yourself, bad or good. For true listeners know that if you are bad-tempered it does not mean that you are always so. They don't love you just when you are nice; they love all of you. 
We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more believed, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends, to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.
I have come to think listening is love, that's what it really is.
Tell Me More, Brenda Ueland