Chapter 7 – Mindful & Heartful Listening: Unconditional Positive Regard in Action

One powerful way we learn to practice giving unconditional positive regard is through cultivating mindful and heartful listening. It explores how we can listen at greater depth, using our own hearts and bodies to find greater attunement with others. When we are able to attune with one another, our nervous system is able to relax and find greater resilience through this interpersonal coherence and BEing. If we can learn to listen to others in a mindful-heartful way, we can learn to listen to ourselves with kindness.

A concrete way we practice mindful-heartful listening is through compassionate witnessing. Compassionate witnessing is listening to another person with our bodies and emotions, instead of with our minds. We are used to listening only with our minds – often preparing something clever to say, bringing in a similar experience, or advising. Compassionate witnessing encourages us to use our bodies as a resource to recognize what is alive within us as we listen, and to sense what is alive or awake in others as they describe their experiences. Being compassionately witnessed offers people the experience of being seen and heard, and hearing how their sharing has touched, moved or resonated with us. Another way of describing it is – what I sense in your heart and the resonance I experience in me as I hold you in unconditional positive regard. I share what I felt (physical and emotional) and reflect some part of what seemed deeply important in your speaker’s heart/spirit.

Confused? That’s ok. You will learn this first and foremost by experience being compassionately witnessed by your group facilitators, will receive some teaching on it during week 3, and THEN we will encourage you to start practicing this in your small group. It may feel awkward and clunky. That is also ok, and in fact, to be expected.

There are so many habitual, conditioned patterns in our verbal responses to hearing another person’s struggles and pain. Here is a partial list of the more common ones:

  • Consoling – – trying to make the person feel better, reassuring, encouraging
  • Fixing/Advising – – offering your ideas about how to solve the challenge
  • Sympathizing – – focusing on how you are feeling in response to what they have shared “I’vebeen there too” or “I can’t believe it! I’m so angry for you – that is so unfair…”
  • Educating – – trying to get them to see how they can change their thinking or actions to make things better
  • One-upping – – telling a story of a worse situation you have endured
  • Correcting – – showing them how they must have misinterpreted intentions or events
  • Interrogating – – asking lots of questions “to help them explore” the issue
  • Analyzing – – explaining to them the dynamics going on in them or in the situation
  • Interpreting – diagnosing

All of us will have responded in some, or all of these ways, and will continue to do so. Some of us have even been professionally trained to listen in these ways. While some responses have their usefulness in certain situations, we encourage you to lean away from these habitual replies and lean in to compassionate witnessing.

When we step away from listening with the typical intent to fix/advise/console/ etc., we are inviting our fellow group members to tune in to their own inner pilot light. We are also demonstrating that we believe they are capable – they do not require fixing, because they are not broken. It is a small but powerful way that we say “I hold you completely able”

Furthermore, responding with compassionate witnessing can be powerful medicine for the witnesser – especially those of us conditioned to ‘fix’ others. When we realize we don’t have to ‘DO’ anything in these moments other than to be present and listen with our hearts, our own nervous systems can settle. We don’t have to ‘fix’ anyone (because none of us is broken).

To start compassionate witnessing, consider the following (adapted from Weingarten, 2003):

  • Being fully present (even if the connection is brief)
  • Listen deeply without preconceptions
  • Writing down words that resonate with you personally
  • Recognize what the feeling is that is not articulated or spoken -Reflect back to the speaker what you have heard using their words

It’s not expected that you provide compassionate witnessing for each person who shares. As you provide compassionate witnessing, you may include some of the following:

  • When I heard you speaking of… (you can use their own words here)
  • I felt… (physical sensation and emotion)
  • I sensed that …… (deep value / core need / longing) is really important to you.

It could sound like this:

“John, when you said that you feel as much anger as you do, I felt tightness in my chest and felt nervous. I got the sense that you just want justice and fairness in this situation – it really matters to you”.

This is not a formula. Authentic expression of compassion is the main idea. The message, however it sounds, needs to be focused on these three sentiments: I see you; you matter; I’m with you.

You will want so badly to advise at times, or to ‘cheerlead’ or reassure. That is ok. We default to these habitual responses because they make us feel we are ‘DOing’ something. It is very challenging to sit with the distress of others. So, when you inadvertently return to the familiar, habitual response patterns of advising, identifying, trying to make each other feel better, etc., our facilitators will gently guide you back toward just BEing a compassionate witness. We are, all of us, learning to be skillful in un-skillful ways.