A Guide to Listening in a Time of Deafness

Many years ago I was part of a group called, The Caring Community.  Founded by a dear friend and colleague who was a facilitator and trainer in the area of human relations, the group was designed to bring diverse people together to spend time in community.  (He defined community as a place where people felt valued, accepted, and connected.)  This time in community was accomplished by way of our focus on personal growth and by regular participation in community service. Throughout our time together each of us contributed unique skill sets, experiences, and resources.  One of these resources was a book suggested by a participant who found it to be of great value.

The Four Agreements, by Don Miquel Ruiz offers a powerful code of conduct to recognize and free us from blindly following self-limiting beliefs and practices. Each agreement is more of a direction than a goal.  Followed conscientiously, they help diminish drama, reduce stress, and offer a personal context from which to make good decisions.  In other words, it helps us to better hear others and ourselves outside of our habitual practices.

I chose to write about this book as a means of offering a way to mitigate the divisive, angry, and polarizing language, we hear daily: the sounds of ideas, attitudes, and emotions we feed ourselves and that both justify what we believe to already be true and that cause us to dig in to protect our perceptions.  And while none of this is new in the history of mankind, it is more rampant and extreme than I have seen or felt in my lifetime.  And what I’m not hearing are alternatives to address these differences with civility, compassion, and understanding.

(There are many other models and authors which offer ideas for how to listen to self and to others.  I chose this one because it works best for me.)

To that end I offer the following taken from The Four Agreements:

Be Impeccable With Your Word

Speak with integrity.  Say only what you mean.  Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others.  Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

Nothing others do is because of you.  What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream.  When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always Do Your Best

Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.  Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

If we applied these agreements to our thinking and our practice, perhaps we might then hold the same conversations over the same issues with less anger and judgement and with the purpose of finding common ground rather than trying to convince others to abandon their perspective and see it our way.

I’d be interested to hear your viewpoints, any thoughts on The Four Agreements, or any books you may have read that you found to be a powerful influence in your life.

How Do You Heal a Country?

How do you heal a country?  How do you protect your own ideals while accepting those of others who are diametrically opposed to your way of thinking and how do you avoid contributing to the overwhelming lack of civil discourse that can often erupt through conflicting expressions of what is right and wrong, factual or fiction?  That seems to be where our country is stuck right now. 

We have to heal and in order to do that we have to find a path to help us heal.  Henry lays out a plan based on the integrity of our word and the desire to work things out.  Mr Kraftowitz , my 7th grade English teacher,  used to say that the mark of an intelligent person is not that he has a lot to say but that he listens!  Something I often struggle with.   I often find myself forming my next point In my head rather than listening to what the other person is saying.  As a result I haven’t learned anything.  I know I do this.  I assume many others do as well, and instead of hearing we are talking passed each other resulting in nothing being achieved.

Are the civil wounds  too great to heal?  Are there things we actually can agree on- facts that both sides can agree are valid and necessary to take into account? Maybe once we can agree to that perhaps we can begin a true meeting of the minds. Currently, this seems to be particular tricky.  We cling to the facts as we see them and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see them the same.


I hate to admit that I tend to be a half empty glass kind of person.  My personal experience was that if I didn’t expect much I wouldn’t be disappointed.  And for a long time in my youth that served me well.


I guess that’s why I’m not sure Henry’s approach would work.  One has to assume for it to work, both/all parties have to want to mend the gap,  agree to be impeccable with their words and are both in search of common ground.  My half empty glass wonders if those factors can become aligned.  I sincerely hope it is possible because something has to happen for us to begin healing. Holding on to personal emotions, beliefs, and ideas in stubborn refusal to let go for fear of who knows what will only enlarge the wound and make civil discourse divide us more.

We Did Not Start the Fire

Before the introduction of the term, “Fake News”, I rode up in an elevator with my social psychology professor, who said: “There are no such things as facts”. He was making the point that all data are interpreted through the lens of the viewer. While there may not be ‘facts’, there’s no shortage of information. According to the Pew Research Institute in 2018, 68% of Americans suffer from news fatigue. Social media has exponentially added to this burst of ‘facts’.

In this time of tweeting, retweeting, and forwarding posts of like-minded opinions, I wonder whether anyone is interested in real discourse — lots of pots, lots of stirring. Hen has made a great point about active listening – and make no mistake, it requires discipline It seems rather that people are seeking confirmation of their own opinions. We’re becoming prisoners of our own ‘metadata’ defined by any one of a number of groups to which we identify.

Geo says that the passion invested in various opinions can prevent an understanding of another’s point of view. In order for rational discourse to occur, each of us needs to submerge our ‘need to persuade’ from the ‘need to repeat back’ someone else’s position so that they can feel understood. It is important to really listen rather than formulating a response while the other person is talking. Understanding does not equal agreement, but it may lead to new ideas and constructive action.  The Four Agreements is a very insightful book as Hen describes. I’d also recommend David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, in particular, his work with diverse groups to formulate community actions.

Conflict management is messy. As Billy Joel sang: “We didn’t start the fire, it’s been always burning since the world’s been turning”. We ought to be sure that we are not the ones stoking the fire.

3 thoughts on “A Guide to Listening in a Time of Deafness

  1. I remember in 1960,64,68, etc. hearing and participating in heated political discussions. Those discussions were about personalities, policies and direction of the country swell. The difference was they were “factual”. Factual in the sense the material was gleaned from reliable sources. Whether the source was NY Times, NY Daily News, or the nightly news anchors, they were generally reliable and “trusted”. The proliferation of 24 hr. news and opinion shows and on-line “news” sources is allowing the discussions to go beyond reliable sources. My facts, what we used to call opinion, are all I need to disqualify yours as false. Not just different – FALSE.
    I am hopeful, but not optimistic, that we as a country can return to civil discourse

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  2. I enjoyed being reacquainted with The Four Agreements, Hen. It brought me back to some great sessions on leadership in your home you so generously shared with us. Those were wonderful moments of respite and reflection. Thank you.
    I co-led a group at my church during Lent last year on civil discourse and it was both a challenge and a pleasure. As I age, I am getting better at active listening but it is a discipline as Geo acknowledges. Sometimes it is easier than others, but I think Wal’s idea to repeat back what the listener perceives the speaker is saying is the key. I listened to a lot of the impeachment hearings and it is a dramatic illustration of the divide in perspectives in this divisive time. While we are at a heightened time of disagreement and discord, we need to serve as models of “civility, compassion, and understanding” – and I would add empathy to that list – to heal our country and become united in the privilege of being Americans.
    Consider these cautionary articles about not taking the idea of “civility” too far:

    “Civility for Whom?”
    With academic freedom and free speech under attack, we should see calls for civility for what they are: attempts to silence the messenger, write Johnny E. Williams and David G. Embrick.
    November 16, 2018 https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/11/16/when-calls-civility-are-attempts-silence-messenger-opinion

    White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession With Civility
    By Thomas J. Sugrue: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/29/opinion/civility-protest-civil-rights.html

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  3. Of Trees and Forests”

    Set the stage before you raise the curtain,
    Engage the audience before you reveal the plot,
    Tell the story through the eyes of each player,
    Sit still and listen in the meadowed lot.

    Affirm the facts but filter the questions,
    Start with the whole and continue to the parts,
    Struggle to understand all events and moments.
    Take the time to visit their hearts.

    Peace is an exercise in active comprehension,
    Move your thoughts from you to others,
    For introspective calm is yours,
    When the flame of confusion is cold and smothered.

    But, know the forest first.
    Then, in time, be each tree.
    What is to be known is to be discovered,
    What is new is for you to seek.

    •Jack Caldwell (Summer 1993, revised 2003)

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