Compassionate Listening

May 9, 2023

Violence, arguing, and smear campaigns seem to be more common now than ever before. Cyberbullying runs rampant, rude comments are everywhere, and cancel culture seems to reign supreme. Where is the compassion? Can people learn to really listen to one another? 

A lack of compassion doesn’t always indicate hostility. It can also represent an indifference or numbness to the suffering of others, which is different from direct schadenfreude. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by your own problems that you felt empty? Have you ever thought “I just don’t care anymore?” 

What can we do to start caring again and listening to one another? What can we do to bridge the gaps between us?

The Art of Compassionate Listening

The art of listening is a wisdom that has been passed down for ages. Many ancient proverbs teach about the virtues of listening, such as the African proverb that says “an ear that listens is followed by blessings” and the scripture that says “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Compassion is a Latin-based word meaning “to suffer with.” Having compassion means to have some understanding of what another person is going through because of an awareness of the shared human experience of suffering. Therefore, compassionate listening is intended to develop a deeper understanding for another by listening without judgment. Various forms of compassionate listening have been practiced and taught by religious leaders and counselors throughout history.

The main purpose of compassionate listening is to suspend your own thoughts, judgments, motives and desires, and to truly hear the other person as they speak. When done well, it can deepen our understanding of another person’s perspective in a way that we may not have considered before. 

Compassion Fatigue

It is difficult to give compassion to someone else when you are running on empty yourself. Compassion fatigue is a problem that results when a person’s inner resources for compassion are exhausted. This can happen when they have dealt with a high demand for compassion for a prolonged period of time, which is common in jobs like social work, counseling, and volunteering, among others.

Compassion fatigue is a concept that has been heavily researched in occupations that require a lot of compassion, such as counselors and healthcare professionals. But it can apply to anyone who has had their compassion resources depleted from their own suffering or dealing with the suffering of others. This is where having self-compassion, finding support, and engaging in intentional stress reduction and self-care can play a major role. Some mindfulness practices in particular are specifically designed to increase self-compassion and reduce stress.

If you feel burnt out or overly stressed, consider talking to a therapist, friend or other good listener.

How to Become a More Compassionate Listener

Increasing self-awareness is one of the key components to compassionate listening. Self-awareness helps us more easily identify our own thoughts, motives, and biases so that we can consciously put them aside when listening to others. Some ways to become more self-aware are:

Once we’ve learned more about ourselves, it can be helpful to also learn how to slow our responses and regulate our emotions in conversation with others. It can be challenging to resist the urge to jump in and give our ideas, but this is crucial to truly engage in compassionate listening. Learning to sit with silence and engaging in mindfulness meditations are also helpful; research on the regular practice of mindfulness has demonstrated changes in the connectivity of the frontal cortex of the brain, an area that plays a central role in attention, impulse control and emotional regulation. Practicing mindful breathing exercises daily can help you to maintain a calm presence and to refocus your attention when distractions occur.

Compassionate listening also takes a humble attitude and a willingness to admit that you don’t know everything. Recognize that the other person knows more about their situation than you do and that it is best that they find their own answers—you are simply there to help them by hearing them out. After all, listening is a catalyst that can allow another person to develop greater insight on their own situation without you even uttering a word.

How By My Side Can Help

By My Side is an organization that offers free support and compassionate listening training. Their mission is to spread the gift of compassion worldwide. If you are struggling or just simply want someone to listen, try using their free online chat platform. 

They also offer other free resources such as journaling templates and videos to help you practice mindfulness activities and breathing exercises.

Or, if you want to learn more about compassionate listening and become a listener yourself, consider taking the Listening Training and becoming a volunteer.

Written by Theresa Karcher, APRN. Theresa is a nurse practitioner and freelance health writer at Nurses-Station.com

References

Hoffman, G. K., Monroe, C.,  Green, L. (2012). Compassionate Listening: An exploratory sourcebook about conflict transformation. https://www.compassionatelistening.org/_files/ugd/0658bd_71f59bbad9d4416fb970bee2878b8711.pdf
Jilou V., Duarte J. M.G., Gonçalves R.H.A., Vieira E.E., Simões A.L.A. (2021) Fatigue due to compassion in health professionals and coping strategies: a scoping review. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem, 74(5). doi: 10.1590/0034-7167-2019-0628. PMID: 34406305. https://www.scielo.br/j/reben/a/HQmdjXfGz4Ff4VDZZ8vMDhd/?lang=en

Sezer, I., Pizzagalli, D. A., Sacchet, M. D. (2022). Resting-state fMRI functional connectivity and mindfulness in clinical and non-clinical contexts: A review and synthesis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 135:104583. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2022.104583. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763422000720?via%3Dihub

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