Right listening and unsolicited opinions

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.

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21 thoughts on “Right listening and unsolicited opinions

  1. I agree, sometimes it is hard to break “old habits”…communication habits, for sure.
    I recently have been studying a book offered through The Gratitude Cafe web site in California titled: “Sacred Commerce”. . . in this book, they talk about a practice called CLEARING – and this has helped a lot.

    In the clearing process, the “listener” does ONLY this. The speaker clearly states what is on his/her mind and then the listener repeats back to the person what he/she heard said; then THANKS the person for sharing.

    After this, a follow-up question is asked, which might assist the person in turning the perceived problem or issue around in the mind of the speaker.

    For example; If I were to say something along the lines of: “I’m feeling frustrated in my work situation because my boss often comes into the office in a bad mood – then proceeds to pick apart everything I do and claims it to be wrong. It hurts my feelings because I am doing the best that I can, and it seems as if she is taking her bad mood out on me.”

    The listener would then say; “THANK YOU for sharing that with me. What I hear you saying is that your employer’s frustrations at work are being expressed in what you would consider to be a critical manner. I also hear you saying that you feel you are doing the best that you can at work, and that (when this occurs) your employer’s words are taken personally…it hurts your feelings.”

    Then…the listener would follow up with a question such as: “Would you be willing to share with me a few things about your employer (or your job) that you appreciate, or admire?”

    Actually, any follow up question would suffice…as long as it is something that will assist the speaker with turning the perceived problem around in their mind.

    I believe that the reason this communication technique works so well is that in most cases; the REAL issue with anyone who is sharing a concern…is TO FEEL HEARD.

    In many instances, we (as human beings) are not looking for someone to “fix it”…we just want to be heard. I also believe that eventually, clarity and wisdom unfold naturally for each person. Feeling as if we have been heard can be very empowering – and I believe that this assists us in clearing up the chatter in our minds so that we may find the answers that are already within.

    Thanks for the AWESOME reminder!
    Peace and Blessings! 🙂

    • That’s similar to part of the right speech practice I learned from Gay Luce. And yes,letting people know they’re really being heard is a big piece of communication that we mostly ignore in our habits. Thank you for commenting.

      • 🙂 You’re welcome – I always enjoy your posts so much!

        I just googled Gay Luce and Right Speech and found an interesting article. And Yes… this sounds very similar. I especially align with the fact that deeper (core issues) may come to the surface for the speaker when the listener is able to allow the process to continue, rather than interject what they think the person means or as I said earlier; try to “fix it”.

        Another interesting process that I learned a few years back, was to ALLOW a person who is crying as they share something, to own their tears without interrupting this process by making physical contact. (Still listening and sharing an expression of compassion of course – but no touching). Have you ever come across this information? I cannot remember where I read it.

        At first, I thought this sounded hard-hearted. But seeing it unfold several times over the years with positive outcomes, I’ve become a true believer.

        The idea of course, is that tears have a purpose, and if we or someone else stops the crying process, it also stops the process toward healing. Many of us (in our compassion for someone who is crying) think that by stopping the tears, we’re stopping the sadness. It’s really the opposite: if we get to cry about something, when we’re done, the sadness has been released (not stuffed down somewhere in the depths of our consciousness).

        I have been present several times when someone shared a painful experience in a class at my Spiritual Center, and the tears came…yet some well-meaning person reached out and touched the person crying; and the process came to an abrupt halt.

        I’ve also had feedback from friends who said; “Thank you for allowing me to cry without making me feel wrong for doing so! That felt so good! I feel so much better!” I’ve now come to the point where when I see someone crying; inside I’m thinking to myself: “OH! Good for YOU!” 🙂

    • Gay included that idea in her version of right speech at Nine Gates (www.ninegates.org), not to stop anyone from emotion or to try to deflect them from whatever they’re feeling. I’m sure she’s not the only one with that idea but I’m afraid I don’t know any other sources for that one. I think crying is good for you.

  2. Pingback: ~ Spiral of Silence ~ « Inspiration Import

  3. With two growing boys, it’s a challenge to know when to just listen and when to offer opinions and advice. The “rules of conduct” also change as kids get older and have more freedom and responsibility. This post is a good reminder for me, to create opportunities to listen. I can tell you right listening with a teenager is a challenge! 🙂

    • Yes, I think with parents and children the equation changes a bit–after all providing guidance and boundaries is part of the deal– although I suspect that right listening probably helps, especially with teenagers.

  4. Pingback: Right listening and unsolicited opinions | Cloud and Mountain

  5. Great post. Like most people, this is one of the precepts that I struggle with the most. It’s the one that’s done the most harm–and one I’ve felt most harmed by. I still sting from words that were said long ago, and I’m sure I’m guilty of having done it to others as well. I love the suggestion “Will my words be an improvement to the silence.” Oh–and I just re-blogged this on my blog. I didn’t see wordpress on the share button so just added the links in myself. I’m going to use this next Sunday evening when my sangha meets for meditation.

    • Thanks so much– I appreciate having it passed along. You can reblog from the reader (or if you’re logged in there should be a reblog to click on the wordpress bar at the top of the page) and wordpress puts all the original post info on it (just to make it easier if you find somebody’s post you want to reblog). Love the idea of the sangha using it.

      • Oh trust me, it takes me ages to figure these things out and I pick up a lot from other people telling me. That was, however, unsolicited advice so sorry for that — I’ve just gotten in the habit of trying to pass along what I’ve learned since it seems like a lot of us are bumbling along with all this tech stuff.

  6. Thank you for this post, Leigh. I didn’t realize that this was a cultural problem. But I sure have been annoyed lately by everybody offering me their opinion on my choices. I feel like it is demeaning to me, implying that they know better than I how I should live my life. This awareness has made it easier for me to hold my tongue about offering opinions to others. It helps to know that this is an issue for everyone…enough so that it made it into the Buddhist teachings.

    • I think it feels demeaning to everyone and yet it is the conversational norm at least in this country. I’m not deep enough into Buddhist teachings to know if the unsolicited opinion piece comes from the original writings or whether Gay just added it based on current teaching but once I was aware of it I started to notice that it’s how almost everyone talks to everyone.

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