“What makes listening hard is that sometimes we do not really care how the other person feels,” explains Burley-Allen, (1995) in Listening, the Forgotten Skill. “This usually happens when we ourselves don’t feel heard, or when we have too much to say. The key to effective listening is being able to temporarily suspend our own need to be heard.”

Suspending my own need to be heard got harder when I began advising business leaders on how to develop robust inclusive corporate environments. The more I learned about the need for racial and cultural reconciliation to create collaborative space, the stronger my opinions became. For months, I went through the motions of the active listening steps (I Thought I Was Listening). I knew I could dig deeper and listen more actively but something was in the way. I struggled inside.

Feeling Urgency

Change wasn’t happening fast enough. I was frustrated and angry people didn’t seem to understand that lives are at stake. When I shared my frustration with a colleague, she reminded me that reconciliation work isn’t about me. I was brought up short.

I realized that if change was to come about, it begins within. One morning I sat quietly, pondering where to start. After a time, I felt my anger and then eventually the underlying fear. I noticed how the anxiety felt in my body. For the first time, I was really aware of how the urgency was impacting me. I took it at face value and didn’t blame myself for the feelings. And strangely enough, I felt quieter. In my meditation, peace had the opportunity to settle around me. And while I certainly still felt the urgency, I noticed an accompanying sense of calm and resolve enveloped me.

Later on, I realized that I had applied the active listening practice to myself!

5 Steps for Listening Within

  1. Sit or lie quietly
  2. Close eyes and notice the sounds around
  3. Become aware of feelings, both physical and emotional
  4. Work to stay with and accept those feelings, especially when they aren’t pleasant
  5. Say, as if to a daughter or son, “That must be hard, I get it” or similar words of acceptance

I had become aware of the urgency I felt. It was in the quiet meditative state that I stayed with and accepted my feelings. When the calm became apparent, I understood how I wanted to take action. I would persevere with calm resolve for the sake of reconciliation. And just as I’d done for myself, I would hold the space for others by actively listening, to facilitate their own awareness, acceptance, and action. As a result, I’ve since become better at authentically listening within my family, corporate environments, and community conversations.

Thanks to my friend Kit McGrath, a Sponsor with Al-Anon who taught me about the 3 A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. -AN