Wise Speech Depends on Engaged Listening

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The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.

– Henry David Thoreau
Last week we explored the various qualities of silence and learned how to develop a deep loving connected sense of silence that allows us to hear the patterns of our own thought processes. This gives us two useful skills as we begin to interact with other people: First, we are developing an awareness of the repetitive nature of our thoughts. When we see them for what they are, we also see that we do not need to say them out loud. They are just the flotsam and jetsam of our brain’s synaptic processes. If we’re not aware of the repetitive nature of our thoughts, we are probably not aware of the repetitive nature of the things we say, those comments we make over and over again about things we see and situations about which we have set opinions. It does seem an unfortunate truth that as we age, without developing increased consciousness, we are more likely to repeat ourselves, much to the dismay of those around us. Here’s an example I used with my students. From our living room looking out across the valley, I can see a house that stands out like a sore thumb in my opinion. So my thoughts go something like, ‘Why did they paint that huge house that color? Maybe I should write them a note before their next paint job to remind them that a less garish color might…” You get the picture. It’s skillful for me to notice that I have this repetitive thought, and skillful to let it stay a thought, to leave it unexpressed. So that’s what we bring from silence into Wise Speech. We are not censoring. We are simply being compassionate. If it bores us to think it, it’s going to bore someone else to hear it! Secondly, when we develop a quality of loving silence we can more easily develop the skill of engaged listening. Listening to others without an agenda is the most skillful means of developing connection in any conversation. Notice when you are in conversation where your mind is when you are listening. Are you really listening? Or are you preparing your response?

Engaged listening means letting go of the need to prove we know something or that our position is the more secure one. We might notice a sense of feeling threatened by someone else’s opinions or statements. What is it that is being threatened? Our sense of separate self that we believe we need to shore up and defend? Time to revisit Wise View.

We might notice that sometimes we listen with a hunger to be entertained, to have our curiosity satisfied. Perhaps we are so used to watching television, plays or movies or reading books that we are passively amused or stimulated by what we hear, even when it’s a friend or family member who is talking. Or if we are not passive, our curiosity might demand to be fed, and we might ask questions that are intrusive, unlike ones that make people feel heard and foster understanding.

There’s a quality of mutual respect in the process of listening, a quality of namaste, loosely translated ‘The god in me honors the god in you,’ It acknowledges that we are all the same stuff at the core of being, and all the distinctions and differences are creations of our minds. This does not mean that our experiences are the same, or that we can make any assumptions about the other person, but it does create a more spacious way to be present in the conversation.

Some of us are antagonistic listeners, actively looking for the loophole, the fatal flaw in the other person’s words, as if all conversations are political debates. Notice if in conversation you tend to break into a person’s sentences, use the word ‘But…’ when doing so, as if there will be some tally of points in the end about who is right. If so, take a cue from the tradition in improvisation theater where each actor dives in with, ‘Yes, and…’ so that the result is a wondrous collaboration instead of a trashing of each other’s ideas.

If you find that you are scanning what you hear for errors and faulty reasoning, you are not listening. Give yourself permission to rest that over-active fault-finder. Listen with your whole being. We might feel that we are listening in a loving way when we are actually on a problem-solving mission. This person is not your problem to solve. Fixing them is not your job.

So you can see that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s about resting in silence, noticing the nature of our thoughts, and developing the skill of really listening to others when they speak to us.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY TIP: If you have a person with whom you have a particular challenge and somehow the words always feel wrong, tap into metta practice, send loving-kindness to him or her before speaking. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.” Always give yourself some metta first. That will enable you to share it more easily.


  1. Funny, Marleen! Yes, the timing couldn't have been better for discussing Wise Speech! I didn't plan it that way, I was just teaching along the Eightfold Path in order, but was delighted to see that it turned out to be the topic at a time of year when many of us have ample opportunity to try it out!


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