February means Valentine’s Day and so our attention turns, briefly, to showing the people around us how much we love them. For those people that remember the holiday, the observance usually takes place in the form of chocolates, flowers and maybe a dinner out on the town. Now that might make for a nice night, but those gifts are fleeting. Valentine’s Day may have passed by the time that you read this, but it’s never too late to begin giving your loved ones a gift whose effect on the relationship can be incredibly deep and profound – the gift of sacred listening. In this article, I’ll explain just what it means to be a sacred listener and why it can mean all the difference to a healthy relationship.
The glue that holds any relationship together is communication. You may share any number of qualities in common, but if you can’t find a way to convey your needs and desires or to truly hear to your partner’s needs and desires, all the commonalities in the world won’t make a difference. This is why I teach clients who are experiencing relationship challenges to become sacred listeners.
The first step in becoming a sacred listener is to be present with your partner. My wife and I are both very busy, but we’ve learned in our relationship that whenever we need to discuss something important, that it’s best to wait until we can both be present with each other. What does it mean to be present with someone? If you are fully capable of focusing on what your partner is telling you and fully capable of considering their thoughts, emotions, needs and desires, you are present with them. Sacred listening requires that you respect the person that you are going to communicate with enough that you can wait to do this effectively. If you can’t be present with your partner, it is much better to postpone an important conversation than to risk causing damage because you cannot be present with them.
Most of us, and I’m guilty of this sometimes too, are reactive. We have this urge to communicate whether it is positive or negative and we blurt things out. This kind of reflex-like communication short circuits our ability to be present with others and makes it much more difficult for others to be present with us.
An essential second step in becoming a sacred listener is to create a sacred space for listening to take place. In my professional work, one sacred space is my treatment room where it’s private and enclosed. It’s well defined by my certifications on the wall, the letters of recommendation, and the letters of membership. These work especially well for left-brain thinkers who want to see evidence of my qualifications. For the more sensitive feeling people, I have my library where I bring people and they can see who I am and sense what is important to me. I’ve chosen colors and created an environment that is inviting and that is a sacred space for listening and communicating. In fact, that’s where I’ve done most of my work with my clients in the past few years because the environment is conducive to making change. If the environment is too pushy, then it polarizes the inhabitant into giving a response. The sacred space should be soft, allowing the feelings and thoughts to flow naturally.
Once you’ve created a sacred space, you will need to clearly define the parameters for safe expression. If you’re dealing with a relationship, for example a husband and wife discussing adultery, and you want to get to the bottom of the relationship, then both parties need to feel safe to convey what they are thinking, feeling and needing. If the both of you don’t feel safe discussing your true thoughts and feelings then you’re much more likely to tell the other person what they want to hear or to fail to be present with your partner in one-way or another. This means the pathology is likely to continue and you’ll be wasting your time and effort when you have the conversation. When I work with my patients, I make it clear that there’s nothing they’re going to tell me that I haven’t heard before and I honestly mean that. I let them know that there is nothing that they are going to tell me that will keep me from being in a position where I can effectively listen to them. So you have to set some sort of parameters to the conversation that lets your partner know exactly what they can say freely.
Setting such parameter is also important because of our nature. It’s natural to fear offending someone when you talk to him or her, however at the same time it’s not in our human nature to wound another human being. When we do it, we’re going against our nature. If you set conversational parameters with your partner, you’re giving them the tools to speak to you effectively and to avoid expressing themselves for fear of offense.
Because sacred listening is really forming a relationship with your partner, it’s important to find a common objective with the speaker and to form a bond that allows opening of the heart. In the book The Sacred Art of Listening, Kay Lindahl describes a tribal association where there is no crime. Whenever someone has committed a fault against another or what we would call a crime, the whole tribe gathers and the person that has committed the offense sits in the center of the circle of tribe members. Each person in the tribe then states aloud everything they love about the person who has committed the wrongdoing. After they have made it around the circle, the tribe gets up and walks away, and the offense is never spoken about again. The point is that the bond the tribe creates opens the heart of the individual who has fallen out of love with the rest of the tribe and welcomes that individual back into the community. So what does this mean? Whenever you are listening, connect before you correct or connect even before you listen. In so doing you will open the heart of the speaker.
Finally, sacred listeners avoid creating distance between themselves and the speaker. We create distance when we say things like, “I don’t care.” Remember that to listen is to be present with the speaker, to connect with them and stating that you don’t care is one way of severing any connection that you have to your partner. It can be hard to avoid creating distance of this kind because sometimes the feelings just rise right up and jump out of our mouths. We just need to work at moving away from being reactive. I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past, but the difference now is that while I am still honest, I am clear about the motives behind sharing my opinions. My motive is to create unity rather than division and letting your partner know this is your motive as well can help them to understand why you offering your particular opinions.
So let me put these components of sacred listening together. If you want be able to listen to your partner at a deep, meaningful level, remember to be present with them, avoid creating distance between you and your partner, create a sacred space, and define the parameters for safe expression. If you can learn to put these elements to use in your relationship, you’ll have given your partner a gift of immeasurable worth.