Illustration: The Magazine of Yoga
Real Life is Real Yoga
Just being heard matters. Why is that so hard to give?
BY MAGAZINE CORRESPONDENT CORINNA BARSAN
The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said that nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak. In theory it makes perfect sense—two is mightier than one, the world is round, what goes up must come down—but in practice, it’s not so easy… especially when your ego is involved.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a tough time keeping my opinions to myself and just listening when a friend comes around for guidance or to vent.
It feels satisfying to fix the problem, to pass along a little morsel of advice, to share some examples of hard-won victories and lesson-learned failures. But while imparting your wisdom may always feel like a stellar moment for you, is your opinion always beneficial to the other person?
Is your opinion always beneficial to the other person?
Case in point: Not too long ago, I was talking to a certain someone who was caught in the middle of rough patch and was asking me to lend my ear. I knew what I had to do, zip my trap, sit there, and support. It started out well. I listened like a pro and acknowledged with unbiased, encouraging sound effects. But then, like clockwork, that little voice started speaking—you know, that voice, the one that thinks it’s always right.
My patient ears zoned out and my ego decided to take advantage by getting on its soapbox. I then committed a grand faux pas—I lectured. My judgmental self flared up and served a heaping plate of “this is what I would do” advice.
Whether it was good or bad, it was the wrong time for me to give it since I was interrupting this outpouring of emotion, I hadn’t been asked for my thoughts, and I sounded like a know-it-all when really I don’t know it all. Everything I dished was more about me than the specific problem at hand.
Of course, as was to be expected, nothing good came of it. Defenses flared and the conversation grew tense and then digressed to another subject altogether to avoid combustion. In the end, my eager mouth and my non-listening ears helped no one.
Relief is often found through release
We’ve all been in need of a shoulder to cry on. More often than not, we’re seeking validation, support, or encouragement. Sometimes you just want to let your woes out through words in order lift the weight off. Relief is often found through release.
But words can both salve and burn. And when you’re met with unsolicited advice from a friend, advice that might come with a self-serving agenda, that relief can quickly turn into frustration and then, well, you’re back to square one.
A confidant should be, above all, a listening ally. But unavoidably, that opinionated voice will want to pipe up with a few choice words and this is where it gets difficult to be a good listener—one that isn’t already thinking of a response while the other person is speaking, or interrupting with a reaction.
The thing is that it should never be about you, what you’ve done, what you would do, what you believe. Our roads aren’t necessarily the right ones for others and when we push our methods, it can interfere with someone’s growing process.
We all learn lessons differently and by creating a safe space for others in conversation, we allow them the room to develop resolution on their own terms.
Open mind, open heart
Am I great listener? Not yet. Am I good listener? Getting better. Am I working at it? All the time.
It is a constant work in progress of the two steps forward, one step back kind. But I have found that it’s helpful to approach these situations as I do meditation. I try to keep my mind clear and just let that person be my focus, listening to every word, to the silences between the words, to the tone of their voice—whether it sounds frantic, angry, or blasé.
A good mantra I keep in my back pocket for when my ego turns on is: open mind, open heart. I take a three-part breath, and another (maybe a few more), I repeat those four words, and I bring myself back to the present—that’s Present with a capital P. I also try to keep my responses to a minimum with a “yes” or “I understand,” and I ask questions to elucidate the problem at hand. Caring, good friend questions keep the dialogue flowing toward the heart of the matter.
By no means have I mastered any of this, but these little guidelines help me pull it together when I’m close to overstepping. But I know that the best intentions can often go awry when faced with the opportunity for your ego to perform a whole song and dance—tell it, the child that it is, to take a time out. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that we are there to guide the other person more efficiently and not direct or criticize. Give a little, listen more.
You can find Corinna’s musings and discoveries on her blog at
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.