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Four Ways of Listening

Previously, we looked at the Rumi poem, The Guest House, in This Being Human. Are you fed up with hearing blame and criticism? Here’s an exercise I use to remind me that there are four ways of listening, and that I need never hear blame and criticism again!

Here’s a situation from my life: I arrive for a regular appointment with a friend and he says, “You’re late again.” Sometimes he doesn’t actually say the words, he just looks at me in a certain way and I interpret the look as, “You’re late again.”

Now it’s important for you as a reader to realise that lateness is hereditary in our family. I was born late, and with any luck, I’ll die late. Be that as it may, the message I’m hearing is, “You’re late again.” Through Nonviolent Communication I’ve come to understand that I have a choice how I hear this message. There are four ways, two of them more life-serving than the others. To maximise learning, I suggest you select a message from your own life to go through as I explore my example.

The first way (and my habitual response) is to respond to “You’re late again” in terms of judging and blaming the person who said it. This might sound like this:

“Who are you calling late? You should stop being so self-righteous. If you give me a hard time about this I’m going to stop coming.” etc. etc.

And then I flip into a second way of listening: hearing the message, “You’re late again.” in terms of judging and blaming myself. In my head it sounds something like this:

“He’s right. I’m always late for our meetings. I just can’t get it right. I’m so inconsiderate – I just don’t care about my friends.”

So these are two ways of hearing messages of this sort: 1. hearing them in terms of judging and blaming the other, and 2. hearing them in terms of judging and blaming myself.

Would you like to live in a different kind of world? A world in which people relate compassionately to each other based on respect for needs? There are two ways I might hear a message like “You’re late again.” The first is hearing the message in terms of what is alive in me – what feelings and needs are touched in me when I hear this message. Here’s how it might sound to express it:

“When I hear you say “You’re late again.”, I feel, well, disappointed, because I’d like acknowledgement of the effort I made to get here, and understanding that it’s important for me to honour agreements.”

And if I really get in touch with my feelings and needs in this way, I might have the space to listen to what is alive for him when he says, “You’re late again.” This is the second way of listening in this other world. It might sound something like this:

“Are you exasperated because you’d like respect for your time?”

In Nonviolent Communication, I make a guess (ask a question) rather than make a statement. I’ve found that a question is easier for the other person to hear. I guess what he’s feeling and what basic human need isn’t being met in the situation. I’ve found that my guess doesn’t have to be ‘right’ to make a connection. You can’t guess ‘wrong’, only human! If my guess is innaccurate, I’ve found that the other person usually tells me what’s really going on: “No, it’s not that. We don’t see each other that often as I’d like. When you’re late, we spend less time together.”

OK – so I guessed it was about respect, and it turns out that it’s about valuing our time together. So I didn’t need to guess ‘right’ to get the understanding and connection I was looking for. And I’m confident that when we connect on this level, on the level of basic human needs, that it will take only a few minutes to find a solution that we’re both happy with:

“For the next month, would you like me to ring you, if I think I’m going to be more than fifteen minutes late, and discuss arranging another time to meet?”

“Yes!” And the next time we will meet, it will be in the next article, The healing power of empathy.


© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine. It has been lightly edited for context.

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