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Compassionate Listening Heals Those Who Speak and Who Listen

Compassionate listening helps heal the one speaking and the one listening,  bearing witness to their pain, their story, forming a bond of understanding.“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” ~ Krista Tippett

After the Alameda fire devastated our beautiful Rogue Valley on September 8th, I wanted to help beyond Go-Fund-Me and food/clothing donations. My search was rewarded when I attended a training on compassionate listening organized by the Hearth Community in Ashland. It reaffirmed to me the intense and healing power in the act of compassionate listening, when we engage both our ears and our hearts.

During the training we listened to each other – we got to bring to life all of our emotions in a healing circle. As each person spoke, we all felt safer and stronger as a community. That’s the power of gathering together for compassionate listening.

As I go through each day now, I listen for the many stories about what happened on September 8. One in particular stands out to me, and I’d love to share her story with you —

I’ll call this person Susan. Susan lives near where the Alameda fire started. She was alerted by the smoke almost immediately. Her instinct told her to check on her neighbors and friends. She started making rounds, making sure that people knew and that animals were safe. At one point she said, “I forgot about my house. It was more important to make sure that the people I love were safe – that we all got out safe.”

Susan was not just telling me a story. She was sharing what matters to her, her values, her priorities. At the end of the story, she herself was surprised by how little her property mattered, and she smiled because she felt good knowing that, even during such a scary event, her values remained solid and clear.

As I check in with my neighbors, friends and clients I know they will need to tell and hear the stories of our shared experiences. And I’m eager to be there to witness their experience. I look forward to gathering stories, supporting them, and making them feel seen and heard, as they integrate this experience.

Why is compassionate listening so powerful?

Listening seems like it should be a simple act. Yet, if it’s so simple, why is there so little of it happening? Why do people find it so hard?

Compassionate listening is hard because it requires us to be present and that takes practice. And it requires vulnerability as their raw emotions may expose and trigger our own feelings, our own pain and anxieties. (This is an indicator that you’d benefit from some compassionate listening on an intrapersonal level — listening deeply to your own interior experience.) Or you may feel inadequate, “I won’t know what to say!” You may feel pressured to advise or fix the situation.

But listening is not about you. It’s an act of selfless love, giving someone the sacred space to be heard.

Why is compassionate listening so healing?

We don’t have to, nor should we, offer advice or try to fix someone who is speaking. All that is required is that we be present and bear witness to their pain, their loss, their story. It takes courage to stop your hurried life and open up to listening without feeling defensive or being argumentative. Compassionate listening requires the mindful suspension of judgment, and a willingness to receive new information – whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing can begin.

Listening creates and deepens connections. It builds bridges that form relationships, even between people who don’t like each other. It makes us whole, calm and collected, after feeling blown apart, fragmented and lost. You don’t have to agree with what they say. Just listen. That’s what people need. As they are heard, they start to heal. And that is what will help them find their own solutions.


Be quiet…

Look at the person…

Listen to learn and understand…

Feel compassion…

Ask questions…

Listen more deeply.

Not only does compassionate listening help the one speaking, it helps the listener. Without prying, you can ask questions that draw you to the speaker, that focus on what has meaning and possibility, that bring clarity and validate feelings.

As we live in a time where people are shouting loudly in protest or in wounded silence, let’s all work hard at improving our skills for compassionate listening.  We can start by creating a listening environment within our families, in business, in politics and in our communities. When people feel that they are being heard and understood, healing can begin. Margaret J. Wheatley sums this up so well…

“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 feel so blessed to have such an amazing support system here in Ashland and online in our Great Circle Community. To have close knit groups of people who gather around, like magic, during a crisis, is a priceless gift I’ve given to myself. Are you ready to create your own community of compassionate listening? I invite you to be present at the next Great Circle Conversation.

Communication Skills, Listening Skills

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