Good Listening

“The secret to good listening is simple.  Unless I’m willing to be changed by you, I’m not really listening.”  Alan Alda

I came across this quote from Alan Alda in a New Yorker article by Howard Fishman ( and it really rang in my awareness.  In fact, it still rings within me.  What got my attention was that I could immediately identify the deep open feeling of real-listening-willing-to-be-changed, compared to the more superficial feeling of not-willing-to-be-changed.  But once I got past the “Yes! I know what you’re talking about!” reaction, I started to wonder a bit more deeply……

When am I willing to be changed?  I’m willing to be changed when I’m listening for information, an answer to a question I have asked.  I’m willing to be changed listening to someone I feel safe with, or someone I have interest in, where I want to go deeper….And there are other kinds of listening, to guidance, while writing, or while painting, or with clients.

And when I’m not willing to be changed?  What’s that?  That’s when I think I know better than whoever’s talking…or when I feel weak or depleted and not ready to give it up.  When I want my constructed world to be the right one…otherwise known as when my ego rules, and I’m just not open to what I then think of as “being wrong.”

What kind of change are we talking about here?  There’s taking in new information and allowing it to expand awareness and action….which could be as simple as listening to a friend’s story and learning from it, either what to do or what not to do.  Or, at a different level, listening to guidance and inhabiting, even if only briefly, the expanded perspective the guides offer.  And then there’s listening to one’s self, to acknowledge thoughts and feelings that have been kept within, maybe not previously noticed, which certainly changes our being both within and without.

This is not just a question of gathering information, like leaves in a basket.  This is about being willing to change the pictures we live with, and to accept that change in the fabric of who we recognize ourselves to be.....which changes the world we perceive.

I think it has to do with where we are listening from….listening from the intellect, what changes is the information in the filing system.  Listening from the heart and being willing to “feel with” brings changes in one’s capacity for compassion and emotional holding.  Listening from the neutral heart, the Big Space, can bring change in the size of the world, as information comes in from the void, beyond what we have believed ourselves to know.  Is one of these "better" than another?  No, we need all of them and more....more listening, less talking....more allowing of others, so that we can get how glorious it is to listen to, connect with the person in front of us.

At dinner last night with a dear friend, we talked about everything in our worlds; books I’d read, movies and shows he’d seen, my expectations of a course I’ll be taking from him, our different experiences of walking with hiking sticks, heart rate variability and how to be more aware of it….you know, “stuff.”  There was really nothing arcane about it, except maybe some of the thoughts on the dimensions that I’m still in process with.  And yet, all through the meal and way after, there was a current of love flowing between us, below the surface of talk, weaving through it in all directions.  So no way could I keep any kind of old story going about what father, lovers, husband couldn't give me, and how the deprivation ruined me.  Clearly not.  Clearly no ruin has happened, nor can it.  Who am I without that story?  More will be revealed later, but I can tell you, it's great so far!

Now, we've had other dinners that didn't get me to here, so what was different?  It  must have been my listening, a new willingness to be changed, the willingness to drop into that richly textured open space and let go.  The awareness that any and every conversation could be an opportunity for change, though some more than others, and all I have to do is to listen as well as I can in the moment.

What might not be evident from Alda's instruction is that it's two-way listening.  It doesn't work if I throw myself away to hear another.  I have to have an ear on myself, so to speak, at least enough to be present.  He says, "If I'm not willing..." so the I really counts, and the willingness really counts.  

It all really counts.