On Compassionate Listening and Loving Speech

May 20, 2021

As practitioner of nonviolent communication, I feel greatly inspired by the approach to communication proposed in the Buddhist tradition of “Plum Village“. Please find at the end of this posting a Dharma talk that speaks to this approach in more depth.

First I want to share here the text on loving speech and deep (compassionate) listening, known as the fourth of the five mindfulness practices:

Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

The core method that I see being employed is setting a clear intention – how we wish to impact when we speak – and concentration plus deep looking – also known as the practice of mindfulness – in order to connect to the deep roots of intense feelings such as fear, desperation, anger, grief and more. The practice also includes connecting to joyful feelings in that way, in order to nourish ourselves for the more difficult moments of holding the suffering inside of us with care.

Over time we can increase our capacity to hold and embrace our own experience, without running away from it, without ignoring it, without trying to downplay it, without being overwhelmed by it. All of those ways of dealing with pain are habitual and we can find them inside of us. It takes time to notice those tendencies and to start a conversation inside of us, in order to speak to the fear behind such non-empathic strategies. “Are you sensing fear, when you hear that … ?” Or it could be just silent empathy towards ourselves: “I notice my running away kind of thinking, I feel the fear inside of me.” And just be with that for a moment, breathe and be with it.

All of this happens while we intentionally sit and breathe mindfully, while we intentionally walk and breathe mindfully or while we do any other activity and breathe mindfully. Standing mindfully, eating mindfully, doing anything mindfully. I guess for most of us lay people a first step would be to take time for one hour a day to breathe mindfully or to introduce certain anchor moments, to breathe mindfully.

We use our breathing as an anchor, we notice when we lose concentration on the breathing because a thought arose and carried us away, become aware what the thought is that we try to run away with (notice), feel into the energy of the thought and then gently return to breathing – practice this being there for ourselves, beyond judgment and blame – diligently moment by moment, day by day.

This practice helps us – as I see it – to restore compassionate communication within ourselves.

As a practitioner of NVC I sometimes also offer myself empathy within this mindfulness practice, to guess my feelings and needs when I notice blame. “When you think that you are stupid, are you longing for more awareness?” Hearing my own curious question, I could then breathe and sense into my experience and report what I am finding to that curious open-hearted part within myself. This approach gradually builds a more peaceful culture inside of myself. I like this possibility of extending my practice.

Opening our heart for our experience – first inside ourselves.

The more suffering we carry inside of ourselves, the more we can eventually also help others. I remember Sister Dang Nghiem – also know as the “healer” – sharing how Thich Nhat Hanh told her: “Practice, my dear, you will be able to help many people.” when she became a novice. She carried deep trauma and suffering inside of her and he noticed it right away. And now, many years later, she has indeed the capacity to help many people.

If we have not transformed a particular kind of suffering inside of us, we cannot help others with that suffering. Hearing about their suffering, our own suffering will get stimulated and then two people are suffering. That can look like sympathy or like sharing judgments with each other. At first pleasant perhaps, for not feeling so alone, this may actually support our believing in our own judgments, making the walls of the prison thicker and sharing it with a friend of fate.

A compassionate community (Sangha) may also support us in the practice of learning to be there for ourselves. Others who have been practicing with themselves for sometime can help us, when they listen to us with this open heart and without blame or judgment. Practitioners of nonviolent communication usually have found there deep need for having a network of empathy buddies or for having a community that supports the flow of compassion. We can always offer to do our best to be there for someone, to listen to them with an open heart, just being there and offer our full presence. Our ability to be present for others is related to our ability to be available for ourselves.

Eventually we can try to extend this practice to restore communication with significant others or get out into the world to help others, where communication has broken down. There are two wonderful examples of this in the talk.

I enjoyed the energy and clarity of this Dharma talk and I hope you will enjoy it too.