Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen


True benevolence, or compassion, extends itself through the whole of existence and sympathizes with the distress of every creature capable of sensation.

–  Joseph Addison


I’ve joined a wonderful group of people who for the next year are going to be discussing, and working through, Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Armstrong is a religious historian who argues that, while all of the world’s religions share one central tenet—Treat others as you would like others to treat you—we humans are in great need of learning how to actually do that.

In our first meeting, we learned that before we can embark on this journey of learning the art of compassion, we need to learn to listen to each other, to truly listen. And so our first exercise was to get into pairs and share a story of a time when we needed to be heard but were not or a time when someone else needed to be heard and we did not listen.

These were our group leader’s beautiful directions for how to listen:

You are the well.

Imagine yourself to be a receptive, dark, silent, cool place

deep in the ground.

Someone speaks, and their words float down softly

into the dark, receptive quality of your heart.

Ah, this was familiar to me, listening with the heart. It is how I listen to the animals because, after all, how else can one hear them?

But I acknowledged to myself fairly quickly that this is not how I most often listen to humans. I tend, instead, to listen with my head. This is not to say that I have no feelings for the pain of others because I do, sometimes to excess. But listening with my heart is not something I routinely do.

As my partner told her story, a painful story that brought her to tears, the image of myself as a well, her words floating down into its receptive depths, gave me a powerful sense of grounding, of quiet strength. I felt no need to assure her that all was well, to fill the space carved out by her pain with my idle words. My job was to listen, to recognize and acknowledge her. Listening with my whole being, with my heart, created a peaceful, strong presence that she could lean into.

Many in the group, including my partner, admitted to having difficulty with this exercise, admitted to having rushed in to offer advice to their partners or to share a similar experience of their own.

The facilitator, who is a friend, later thanked me for “actually listening to the instructions.” She said this with a smile, somewhat incredulous that so many others had seemingly not heard them. I think, though, that they did hear them but that the instructions were so alien to their normal way of being that the participants quickly forgot them, brushed them aside in their rush to assist.

When prospective students inquire about my animal communication classes, I send them a letter, which includes an explanation of the value of strengthening our telepathic ability (an ability I believe we are all born with):

Hearing an animal requires that you go to a place of stillness inside of yourself and listen with your heart. It requires that you lay aside preconceived notions and biases. It requires respect and compassion. These skills will not only allow you to hear the animals, they will enrich many other areas of your life.


I have been teaching and living this for many years. How blessed I am to now have the opportunity to take my understanding to a much deeper level, to practice making heart-centered listening a guiding principle in my daily interaction with two-legged creatures.

What do you think of the well exercise? Can you listen, truly listen to someone who annoys you, who angers you, who you envy or feel judgmental about? What have animals taught you about listening?


If you have received this post via email, just click on the title to respond. I hope you will be moved to share your thoughts.


2 Replies to “Learning to Listen”

  1. Hi Pam,

    This sounds like a wonderful group. Being able to listen and really hear another person is a big part of compassion. I like the well exercise for listening. Does the person who is doing the listening also provide some kinds of non-verbal or verbal communication to signal to the other person they are being heard? How well I’m truly able to listen to what someone else is saying is in part determined by the emotional energy that I’m also picking up from others. What I’ve learned from animals about listening is to pay attention to the nonverbal communication and subtle differences in tone, pitch, etc.

    1. Sue, you can respond in any way you choose. I actually responded verbally a few times, but only said, “I’m so sorry.” The idea was to not offer suggestions unless you were asked. There weren’t any other rules.

      I agree that non-verbal response is very important. But you’d want that to be of a calm, listening variety as well. I mean, you wouldn’t want to raise your eyebrows and scowl 🙂

      When my partner had completed her story, she expressed a little annoyance, saying something like, “Well I guess you don’t have any suggestions.” I reminded her that the exercise was for me to listen. I said she needed to tell me if she was asking for suggestions. She did, and I offered one.

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