By Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

(A Presentation given to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on 2/14/2016)

Good morning and Happy Valentine’s Day!
The purposes of my talk are to share some thoughts about why I think listening is so incredibly important in our lives, about why I think it’s related to our ability to love and a little bit about how to do it better.  I dare to come at this subject from several directions that range from in-depth experience to considerable experience to beginning experience and then, “beginner’s mind” which means I am just now discovering a body of knowledge. The first direction involves in-depth experience about my own story of survival and recovery with manic depression. During that horrific 12 years of hardship and suffering, my life was saved countless times, large and small, where someone listened well to me.  I am able to stand before you today because that is true and it is why I am so passionate about this subject.  A second direction comes from my former career as an organization consultant where I used to coach management teams and executives about “active listening” skills, which is a particular type of listening. I will talk about this briefly Thirdly, I am enrolled in my 2nd year of Spiritual Direction Preparation training where I am learning a special type of listening that is appropriate for companioning people who are seeking deeper meaning in life. I am not quite a beginner in this respect but still needing to learn a lot. I will mention this special type of listening briefly too.

Although I don’t do therapy at work at the VA, I am privileged to hear intensely personal stories and can affect people’s lives. I am pretty good at my job, but am seeing how far I have to go when I consider my latest course of study, the several books that I bring to share with you today.  This is where I find the real juice for the fourth direction of what amounts to my limited expertise, exploring “listening as a specific art and set of practices.  My guru here is---Kay Lindahl, author of two books I’ve been scouring for enlightenment.  In this respect I’m sharing with you my beginner’s mind.  We teach what we need to learn. I find her material immensely rich and am excited to share that she is coming to the Franciscan Spirituality Center April 29-May 1. Part of the program  will be 3-hour public presentation segment  I hope there will be people here today who will attend.

But now, it’s time to talk a little about listening and love.  Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” I appreciate his wisdom and believe it is fitting that we examine the subject of listening on Valentine’s Day when we consider our beloveds.  Many things go into creating loving relationships, but I suggest to you that Listening is a critical ingredient.  Tillich’s words,” the first duty of love is to listen” are powerful words, words we may not heed enough.  We often take listening for granted, but as our opening words suggest, listening is NOT so simple.  We seldom realize how it can have such a healing, loving effect and we may well be novices in knowing how to do it well. I am using the word, “sacred” to mean reverent venerated, hallowed and even holy.

Before telling you some stories about why I am passionate about listening, let me ask three questions and share some information about the lost art of listening.  Feel free to just sit with the questions but otherwise please raise your hand in response.  How many of you know what it feels like to be really listened to?  How many of you think you’re a really good listener?  How many of you have had some training in listening skills?  Well, …….According to the International Listening Association, research shows that we spend about 45 % of our time listening, but we are preoccupied or forgetful about 75% of that time.  The average attention span for adults is about 22 seconds.  Immediately after listening to someone talk, we usually recall only about half of what we heard.  Within a few hours we remember about 20%.  And less than 5% have had any training in listening skills!.  (Lindahl, p. 89, 2002)  That means I should just stop talking now and leave you this presentation to read!  BUT. I will continue, hoping that there will be some nuggets that snag you into better listening, all the while suggesting that most of us could stand to learn more about good listening  Besides lacking the intention, the knowledge and the presence, there are so many distractions such as TV, computers, cell and smart phones, texting and our busy, non-listening lives.

Whenever I speak to groups or classes about my journey through the wilderness of mental illness, which was a tough grace that I discovered to be a spiritual path, the most frequent question I get is, “what can we nurses do, or what can we as family members do that will help those who suffer?  I tell them, unhesitatingly---the answer is to LISTEN, and to listen as though YOUR life depended upon it because the person in front of you may be in that position, deserving your upmost attention. Whenever I was paranoid or suffering delusions or simply disturbed in a psych ward, and when someone listened to me there, I came back to my real or “normal” Self more quickly. Those who tried to talk me out of it, using advice or logic, either made me angry or left me feeling invalidated.  This increased my despair and aloneness. It further alienated an already alienated soul.  Those who listened effectively, however, did so without judgment and with compassion. What does it mean to thus listen with heart and soul?  It means listening at multiple levels, able to be fully present to another. I have time to share only a few stories..

One time a nurse just held my hand in silence as I sobbed out my despair at being threatened with institutionalization at the state mental hospital in Mendota.  To be sent there would have totally disrupted my life, especially since I lived alone and had no way to handle my affairs if I would be locked up.  In addition, there would have been the trauma of longer-term commitment far away from people who cared. That nurse, however, simply sat with me and listened deeply, without advice or even consoling words.  She was demonstrating that listening may sometimes be silent, merely “being with” a person.

For me it was priceless.  Her gift meant that I was strengthened enough to go back to my room and resume preparing my case with the patient advocate to protest the authoritarian behavior of a doctor who had refused to listen to my request for low dose medications because of my ultra-sensitivity to drugs.  I was trying to get another doctor, which he had insisted was impossible.  But I was able, after being listened to by that nurse, to regain my will to fight so that I could put together a case to convince the judge in my Chapter 51 hearing that I needed a different physician. The case I put together was so convincing that my lawyer put me on the stand, which was unusual, to testify on my own behalf.  I was able to show the judge that I deserved a different psychiatrist.  She agreed that the doctor-patient relationship was broken; I got a new doctor and I wasn’t committed to Mendota!  That’s why I say that nurse saved my life. I can remember sitting in the nursing station with her holding my hand as if it was yesterday. Those were sacred moments.

And then there was the woman doctor at Gundersen who listened compassionately in the psych ward when I was beside myself with distress because I had lost my purse at the airport; her gift, accompanied by a touch to the arm, enabled me to return to my bed, get myself together and make a phone call to a neighbor who rescued the missing item which of course held my entire identity and the ability to handle my affairs. Later in my illness there was a nurse who patiently listened to me rattle on about maybe writing a book.  It was her encouragement that started me on the path to writing A TOUGH GRACE: MENTAL ILLNESS AS A SPIRITUAL PATH. Her listening touched me deeply because she heard the longings of my heart.  All along my path of 12 years of horrific suffering, my life was saved hundreds of times by people who listened, saw me humanely as someone in need, despite my sometimes being a disheveled bag lady; often they took that listening to the level of concrete help.  Such action made the difference in whether or not I continued the next few hours, the next few days or weeks and months. Being listened to is HEALING, strengthening and validating.  It can transform a life.

But there is another story which is perhaps the most dramatic of all. A Franciscan sister listened to me at some crucial moments. I had just been released from the hospital upon return from Arizona to La Crosse and thought I had nowhere to go to get myself going again. I was still paranoid.  Thus, I found myself on the streets on a rainy evening.  Furthermore, I was feeling as though I was about to die---not because I was contemplating suicide but probably because I’d been off my thyroid medication for 6 months, which can be life-threatening, and the hospital stay had not been long enough to correct the situation.  In my confusion and bewilderment, I stopped at a house on 8th and Main that had a sign above the doorway, “Transformation,”so I knocked and asked for help.

The kind man who answered the door indicated he had nothing to offer but suggested I go down the street to the Convent.  Somehow they let me in where I was met by en elderly sister in their drawing room. She just listened to me there, without giving me advice or trying to talk me out of my death thoughts.  I was at peace with dying but was concerned about my personal effects, and about who would take care of my townhome back in Arizona.  I was thus bereft, mildly irrational, totally alone and without a way to solve this dilemma, much less know where I would sleep that night.  Once again there was someone just holding my hand, listening quietly, without trying to talk me out of my death thoughts. Eventually I felt strong enough to go back out into the elements where I proceeded to the Catholic worker hourse, A Place of Grace on Hood street.  There I found a place to sleep outdoors in their backyard playhouse.  In the morning help was available, including food and access to a phone where I could begin putting my life back together again.  I did have some assets throughout my painful journey through hell, but I either got separated from them or was too paranoid to tap them.  The Place of Grace phone as well as their welcoming atmosphere helped me put some temporary housing arrangements together.  I went on to get settled in La Crosse. That Franciscan sister saved me that night.

The sisters have immeasurably enriched me, including the last several years of my being enrolled in their Spiritual Direction program. There is a special type of listening in this profession which takes the client deeper into feelings and a self-knowledge, helping them draw out their own answers. Listening at the heart level and asking open-ended questions about feelings, images, patterns, deepest desires or needs, is key to this companioning process. The focus is very much on listening and NOT having the answers.  I am still very much a learner.

Spiritual companioning is characterized by a kind of listening that is different than the problem-solving, goal-setting listening of my job. Although this is true, however, I have had some special moments at work and think that my listening makes a difference to people.  One of my favorite clients is a woman who has faced untold personal and military trauma; I know both of us remember the day she first haltingly told me her story.  I could only listen deeply to her horrific experiences with silence and a compassion that was thick in the room.  These were sacred moments.  To be witness to this kind of sharing is to be touched to the core, to be at one with another in the midst of despair.  It requires being comfortable with silence, able to resist the urge to “take” the suffering from the other person.

There is another special listening skill which many professionals know well.  It is “active listening” which I taught to my organization development clients.  Many team members were top-level managers who were in constant argument.  Before I could do any team-building, I had to stop and teach this skill.  After this coaching, they frequently said that their whole lives had improved.  This skill is an important for anyone and deserves a separate mini-workshop.  It involves reflecting back verbally, what you think you have heard the other person say either at the word level, the feeling level or the meaning level or all of those during the course of a conversation. It requires deliberate intention, suspending assumptions and judgment and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Finally, we get to the richness of Lindahl’s specific work on the sacred art of listening.  She says that Deep listening, which alone is a term that I like, is first and foremost a CHOICE that often requires from us a suspension of assumptions (which hardly ever happens because we are so busy getting ready to speak our own agendas); it is also a huge GIFT and then, an ART. The dictionary definition of the word, “art” is a long one, but Lindahl puts it best. “One of the common themes of an art is the sense of being at one with it.  Thinking about listening as an art changes our perception of what it means to listen.  Rather than thinking of listening as an ACT, something we “do,” we recognize it as an art, something that we “be” as a part of who we are, a way of being.  We become a listening PRESENCE.” Unquote.  Most often we do not think of listening as an ART, but I have come to regard it as sometimes uniquely reverent and am aware that I am trying to do it better in the being, presence way.  Lindahl changes both the depth of my awareness and my desire to do it more consciously.   As Lindahl says in a journal article, “The quality of our listening can make a profound difference in any conversation. To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for the other.”  Unquote. When you are feeling discouraged about the state of the world and your own helplessness to make a difference, recall this profound statement which I repeat---“To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for the other.”  Think of your friends, your children, your work colleagues, even casual connections.  Do you realize what a gift it is to truly listen?  I think most of us do not; we may value the friendship, but we do not realize how much listening at deeper levels can matter.  But people are drawn to those who truly listen for a reason.  They validate us, they help heal us from all kinds of concerns and conditions.  They help us realize new insights and help us grow.  I am acutely aware of my support system and about those who listen deeply to me or to whom I can give that gift. They are my lifeblood.

Some of the best insights from Lindahl come from her second book, Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening. In answer to the question, how then do we listen this way, she has some surprising advice.  The first part of listening well is to become familiar with learning to cultivate your own silence.  Surprising!  She says the necessity of this is that as we practice stillness we make more room for others. (p.15, 2014)  She suggests a daily practice of some sort or at least spending some minutes each day in deep silence. “She says, “once we learn how to make our minds still, like water in a pond, people are drawn to us.  The stillness around us provides a mirror for them to see themselves in their essence, perhaps for the first time.  This gift can transform a life.”  (p.78, 2014).

The second discipline or practice is to slow down to engage in reflective listening. We usually think of listening as something we do for another, but this kind of listening is to hear the inner voice, to know our true Self, to know the voice of our soul. Reflective listening is about listening for the questions. Ask yourself, “what wants to be said next?” (p.32, 2014) vs. being ready with the answers. She even proposes a group exercise to accomplish this inner knowing called “The Listening Stick.” Yes, I said listening stick, not talking stick. She provides specific directions. It involves learning to “live in the questions” rather than finding answers, and it sounds like a fascinating exercise; a group can be stunned by the bond that develops in just a short time. (p.127, 2014) She again suggests that when we respond to this inner voice, our lives begin to transform. I intend to invite my covenant group into this process.

Her third discipline or practice is to become present, to be mindful of each moment, pay attention, be WITH the person you are with. This quality of sacred listening is listening from the heart. It requires a laying aside of yourself to be fully in the moment with someone. To do this she suggests taking mindfulness moments and taking only mindful phone calls, pointing out that research has shown that chronic multi-tasking is not only inefficient, it can lead to a risk of brain damage. We can’t be in the present moment when we are focused on more than one thing at a time. (p.46, 2014)

A group method for being fully present to one another is called Dialogue, which is not the same as a discussion group. It is done in a spirit of inquiry, looking for the sacred meaning of things beyond our individual understanding. She lists the purposes of this kind of process, which she also outlines in a series of 9 guidelines I won’t take you through the guidelines, but the purposes seem important to share:

Dialogue can help us:

-Come to a new understanding

-Build community in a board, group or team

-Develop shared meanings

-Hear each other’s stories and recognize other’s gifts

-Appreciate diversity and wisdom

-Listen with a spiritual ear

-Bring about healing

-Understand our differences by talking about issues we find difficult

-Create a culture that recognizes that we are all members of one family, the human family

-Create communities of love. Love put into action and appealing to human goodness may be the key to healing our hearts. (Lindahl, p. 50, 2014)

The outcomes of dialogue include creating a safe space, building trust, unlearning misinformation about each other, discerning common values, learning what we are called to do, exploring new areas of beliefs that we haven’t thought about before and tapping into collective wisdom. I wonder if it would be of interest for a few others in this Fellowship to examine this process and see if it might fit for us. I wonder if it wouldn’t help us put difficult issues more fully on the table, such as whether we see a future with or without a minister without fearing the adamant attitudes which seem to exist? I wonder if we could deepen our discovery, as Lindhal suggests, that “creating community is a spiritual act.” (p.88, 2014)

Once again this marvelous teacher puts all of this into perspective by telling us that listening is more than hearing words, more than an act. She calls it an “art” because that word means, for her, “At-oneness.” Those times when we are fully present with whatever we are doing are times of oneness.

I call it also love. To be truly listened to is to be loved; to listen well is to BE loving. What if every day was Valentine’s day in this spirit? What would happen if we all knew how to listen better, to care more about listening from the soul, thus giving deeply from the heart? Such acts are sacred, precious gifts in a world sorely in need of deeper, more meaningful relationships. Listening is a profound gift in all sorts of situations, in ways large and small. But it is also a choice and an art. Listening can transform a life. As Paul Tillich said, “the first duty of love is to listen.”


Holstein, Alice A.: A Tough Grace: Mental Illness As A Spiritual Path. London, England, Chipmunka Publishing, 2011. (Available through Amazon.com)

Lindahl, Kay, “Listening: A Sacred Art and A Spiritual Practice,” Presence, a journal of the Spiritual Direction International organization, Volume 20, No.4, December 2014.

Lindhal, Kay. Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening. Woodstock, VT, Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014

Lindhal, Kay. The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating A Spiritual Practice. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2002.