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Home » B'Chukotai, Miscellaneous

Bechukotai: Active Listening

Submitted by on May 11, 2014 – 3:56 amNo Comment | 4,037 views


Do you practice Active Listening?

I remember standing on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean in Central California, gazing down at the blue waters, shimmering waves and bright sunlight. I was transfixed, utterly and completely absorbed by the scene. Having lost all critical thought, I was aware of only one feeling, wow! Such is the power of sight. It draws us in completely and takes momentary possession of our minds. We stop thinking for ourselves and become what we are looking at.

Active Listening

Listening is different. The person talking to you is outside reaching in, grasping for your attention. Sight is active, you reach out to take it in. You open yourself to the scene and let it fill you completely. Listening is passive, you sit back while others seek your attention. It’s much harder to be completely open when you’re passive and therefore much harder to be fully absorbed by what you hear.

Yet, active listening is the key to true communication. Active listening means to suspend internal judgment and commentary while focusing completely on the speaker. You also need to provide cues of being riveted and interested such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, making encouraging sounds and, where appropriate, asking for clarification. You need to help the speaker feel that you aren’t on the outside listening in. You are listening to them, as you would listen to yourself.

This puts your interlocutor at ease. They feel understood. They feel that you are on their side. You see things the way they do and share their feelings on the matter. It frees them to speak their mind and communicate their truest feelings with clarity. When they feel judged, they hedge and waste sentences defending their position, which hinders communication. In a debate it makes sense to justify your position, but in conversation the intent is to share thoughts and feelings, not to defend them.

A true listener listens from the speaker’s point of view. You might have a completely different point of view, but when practicing active listening, your point of view becomes irrelevant. Your goal is to understand the other’s point of view, not to judge it against your own.

The more actively you listen, the more you draw out the speaker. The more you draw them out, the more you learn. In fact the more they talk, the more they learn about themselves and about the problem they are discussing. It is often the case that the problem is solved merely by listening. We think we need to offer an opinion to solve a problem, Often, it is through listening that we give the other a chance to fully explore the problem and come to recognize the solution on their own.

Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri, the second Rebbe of Chabad, was once asked why chatting with his Chassidim exhausted him. He explained that when a chassid speaks to him, he must shed his own garments and don the Chassid’s garments so as to listen well. When he considers the problem, he must shed the Chassid’s garments and don his own so that he understands well. When he shares his advice, he must once again shed his own garments and don the chassid’s garments so that he communicates well. It is no wonder that he is exhausted after changing garments three times in a single audience.

I know someone who went to the same therapist for fourteen years. He swears by this therapist and claims she solves his problems. For the first ten years she never offered an opinion. She just sat there and listened. As he talked, he felt understood and accepted. He first grew comfortable with himself and slowly began to grow comfortable with his feelings. She made it possible for him to explore his feelings and even acknowledge his faults. His therapist taught him more about himself by listening then she could ever have done by talking.

It was only after ten years that he was ready to listen to her and ask for guidance. She began to explain things to him and to encourage him. She understood perfectly that if she had talked earlier, he wouldn’t have accepted her advice. After ten years, her words were effective. He was finally ready to listen.

Listening With Humility

It isn’t only professionals that need to practice active listening, we all must. When you look directly into my eyes, you ought to see a reflection of yourself. When I listen to you, my mind should be so filled with you that when you look into me, you see yourself. I should think and feel as you do. While listening to you, my thoughts should be irrelevant and my judgment suspended. Then I will truly understand you.

Active listening requires discipline and skill. We must be able to refrain from offering opinions even when asked. The impulse to answer is strong, but your interlocutor benefits more from your silence. The temptation to take ownership of the other’s problem is strong, but we can’t own another’s problem. We can offer encouragement and support, but not solutions. Instead we nurture them until they find it.

In other words, when practicing active listening, you set yourself aside and fill your mind with the other. You think like them, feel like them and listen to them. In a sense you let go of being yourself and become them. As the Rebbe put it, you shed your own garments, your thoughts and perspectives, and don theirs. This requires humility, but it is only with humility that you make a connection.

When you are filled with your own thoughts and judgments there is little space for others. To fill yourself with another, you must make space. You must be free of yourself and become transparent.

King Solomon wrote, “As the waters reflect the face [that peers into them] so does the heart reflect the heart.”[1] Waters only reflect the face when they are clear and transparent. When they are murky, they don’t reflect at all. The same is true of us. When we become transparent, free of ourselves, our interlocutor feels completely at home in our presence. They look into our face and see a reflection of themselves. They find empathy and understanding, nearly as if they see themselves staring back at them. In other words, active listening means to turn yourself into a mirror.

Listening to G-d

Perhaps this can help us understand why the Torah emphasizes the importance of listening to G-d. The Torah promises reward for listening and punishment for not listening.[2] Even more than obedience, which has its own word in Hebrew, the Torah demands listening. Surely listening includes obedience, but the Torah seems to emphasize listening even above obeying.

Perhaps the Torah is encouraging active listening. To set our objections and doubts aside, filling ourselves with G-d’s thoughts, is active listening. To humbly set ourselves aside and be fully absorbed by G-d, is active listening. To be free of ourselves and transparent to G-d, is active listening and a feat worthy of reward. May we perfect the art with our fellow and learn to practice it with G-d


[1] Proverbs 27: 19 as elucidated in Sefer Mamarim Melukat, v.6 p. 282.

[2] Leviticus 26: 14, 18, 21 and 27. Conversely see Deuteronomy, 11: 13.

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