Right speech is part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. It’s a huge topic with lots of subcategories. I almost feel as if right listening should have a ninth slot on the Path because it seems too important to be subsumed under right speech. In full disclosure, I’ve learned enough about it to be able to teach it and I have a couple of friends who’ve become master practitioners so I know what it looks like in action, but though I am good at it when I’m sitting in practice with someone, in daily life, well, let’s just say I have a long way to go.
Both right speech and right listening require you to stay mindful and to learn to be honest with yourself and therefore in what you say. I think right listening has some bigger challenges. Because it’s a big topic and I try to keep these posts short, I’m just going to look at the aspect of right listening that asks you not to offer unsolicited opinions or advice.
Literally that means that if a friend has just told you about a problem she’s having but has not asked you to tell her what you think she should do or supply your own take on how she should feel, then you should not offer an opinion. Nor should you hear about someone’s project or plan and immediately start offering opinions as to how to better it or why not to do it unless they’ve specifically asked you to give advice. Right speech and listening is a dance of communication in which you each try to hold a space that helps the other person to explore deeper into their thoughts and feelings so that you communicate from the heart.
Your job as a listener is to try to put aside your own thoughts and feelings—so a great spiritual exercise—in order to really hear what your friend thinks and feels and to ask neutral questions that help her to explore more deeply into her topic and what she feels about it than she has before. Our conversational habit as a culture is to step in every time someone mentions a problem or question and start offering suggestions and opinions, so I think it’s a huge challenge to practice right listening.
For a few years after I learned about right speech at Nine Gates I had a couple of practice buddies and a greater consciousness about the opinions thing so I was better about avoiding it. But old habits are hard to break and that particular habit is so much a part of the way everybody seems to converse that I fell back into it and maintain it as my conversational mode most of the time. I want to try to shift that practice by taking a moment before I respond—can I be that mindful? whole other question… I like Sylvia Boorstein’s question, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?” I think a moment taken to ask that question would change a whole lot of what comes out of my mouth. Anyone care to try it for a while? I’d be interested to dialog about how people do with it and how it feels.