The first duty of love is to listen. — Paul Tillich
In 1994, I participated in a short training experience that changed my life. The instructions for the exercise: Be quiet for eight minutes while someone tells you his or her life story, then switch and tell your life story while your partner listens quietly for an equal time. No questions, no comments, no interruptions. Just listen.
In those days I was still practicing law, and the exercise revealed to me what a poor listener I was. When my partner started to tell his story, I wanted to ask a truckload of questions directing the conversation. I wanted to follow up on particular details, ask about things he hadn’t mentioned, shortcut certain areas and learn more about others that interested me, like someone fast forwarding through a TV show.
After about three minutes, however, something remarkable happened. That incessant voice in my head began to quiet, and for the first time I began to listen at a deeper level. I observed my partner’s body language, soaked in his selected words and stopped trying to control the conversation flow. In the remaining five minutes, I learned something profound about the person speaking. I began to see and understand him for the first time. I was actually listening to him instead of focusing on my bundle of projections about him.
Then it was my turn. At first the challenge seemed ridiculous. How could I tell my life story in eight minutes? Well, I could try to relate the salient details. Off I went, and in approximately two and half minutes I was finished! How could this have happened? I started over again, and in the remaining minutes experienced what it was like to speak in a dialogue without being interrupted. I realized something profound. Even though I was a practicing lawyer and talked all day, I didn’t really get to say much. Most of the time, I couldn’t communicate my complete thoughts because the person listening was always waiting to pounce, cut me off, question or redirect the conversation to suit his agenda. This had been true in both professional and personal circles.
Many years later, I use the Eight Minutes exercise regularly in my leadership development practice. The experience of reflective listening sensitizes learners to listening challenges while building their capacity for deeper listening, which can produce powerful insights within groups and situations. Deep listening builds strong empathy skills, inviting us to understand through the senses of those around us.
The Eight Minutes exercise demonstrates an interesting paradox about the nature of effort applied in listening: less is more. When we have the strength to be silent, the world around us speaks volumes. When we aggressively question and investigate, the world closes up like a fortress under siege. I have helped many “active” listeners who expend great effort questioning and recapitulating to be quiet and just listen. I like to use the metaphor of still waters. A still body of water can beautifully reflect the sky. Water stirred by wind or currents reflects little.
In my work with leaders and groups, I have learned that the harm we cause usually is not intentional; it often flows from the accidental failure to perceive another’s interests, feelings or perspectives. Of course, there are sociopaths and very angry people in the world who simply enjoy inflicting pain. But most people who do harm are not so dysfunctional. Usually denial or simple inattention causes temporary blindness.
Several years ago I was driving on a highway next to massive truck. The driver couldn’t see me as he exited and nearly drove me off the road. Was this due to his lack of empathy skills? No. I was in his blindspot. Not long ago, in a relationship of the utmost importance to me, I managed to say things that caused pain. Did I mean to cause harm? No. I was just more focused on my own interests and needs than my impact. When I finally opened my mind in reflection, I was able to repair some of the hurt.
Deep listening takes years of practice. As with running, weightlifting or stretching, if we stop practicing, our abilities atrophy, sending us into a dark and sometimes selfish cocoon. Â Eight minutes of quiet listening is a powerful exercise to turn on the lights and open the windows. Listening is always available to us, yet like many important practices in life, this power is both simple and difficult. The key is to stop. Stop talking. Stop planning what you want to say. Let go of your own agenda. Focus on someone else. Find the rare strength to be quiet.
Give it a try. The fleeting eight minutes builds a foundation from which we can begin to fathom the special eternity of another’s mind and heart.
This piece was originally published by Ashoka’s empathy initiative.