Reflections On Listening And Giving Advice

The following is part of an email I sent to Adrienne this morning. Since it started to look like a blog post I asked her if I could publish it, with additions. She agreed.

Dear Adrienne,

I have been writing a post in my head this morning about giving advice. Your post yesterday The Trouble with Advice has got me going.

I have also been thinking about listening and how one obviously has ones views and opinions bubbling up while somebody is talking, and hearing ones own thoughts needs to be in the picture also. Further, there is the wider listening. The sound-scape you could call it. Traffic, the hard drive of the computer, cooking sounds, the toilet being flushed – these are in the background, less in ones direct awareness but there non the less. Yes, listening in the sense of listening to what somebody is saying is specific. However my sense is that to really listen/be there, with all of ones senses, the sound-scape is there also. Ones own mind being very much part of the sound-scape to take account of. To own and not give away rashly, if at all.

So….the edge one keeps approaching when listening to somebody (say she is telling you about her day at work) is: allowing the sound-scape yet not rushing to respond when it’s not needed right now, and refraining from saying something like ‘you’ve got to be JOKING’ when she comes out with something bonkers. Those are the times when it’s obvious to keep ones mouth shut…and continue to listen and ask questions when in the sort of position you (Adrienne) are in professionally.

For the most part (this is my view) most people are not actually asking for feedback, advice or comment – or what ever. They, as you say, asking for and benefiting from simply being listened to. Further, when somebody is overtly asking for advice they are not necessarily asking you to tell them, chapter and verse how to live their lives better or how to discipline their children or animals! Advice can be over done especially between friends and even more especially within families! An example from this very morning: I was being waved off by my cousin and family with whom I’d stayed the night. And there I was letting slip several sentences of jolly advice – it’s the process not the product and never mind you saving the world, take care of yourself…! How horrible is that?

The context of the conversation is a good guide. Forums are an advice ‘fest’, because that’s what they are set up for. However the comment section of Jade is not a forum so generally people don’t take it upon themselves to offer advice to other commenter’s, or to me. Which is how I prefer comments to be. Some blogs do have this element but here not. So why is that? For now as a preview, and to remind me what it is I’m going to write about tomorrow, I’ve a thought on what Jade might possibly have become for a few people. A Buddhist temple! If this is so I’ll feel free to respond to comments again, with…spiritual encouragement.

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8 thoughts on “Reflections On Listening And Giving Advice”

  1. I guess that is why Kanzeon is ‘REGARDER of the Sounds of the World’. ‘Taking off one’s jacket’ and ‘wading in’ aren’t mentioned in the scripture. Not that they might not sometimes be an appropriate response.

  2. Since I started volunteering as a counsellor I have been amazed at the power of listening. Most people have not been listened to very much in their lives. By being heard for an hour at a time they often reach their own solutions.

    I know if I want to discuss something that’s bothering me I want to get it all out, hear myself speak out loud & decide if that’s what I really mean. People who suggest practical solutions are, I feel, unable to sit with another’s pain or distress, or simply the ‘not knowing’.

    The spiritual counselling at Throssel has always been a tremendous support for me as I find that what happens is I am able to say what is troubling me & be fully listened to. My own listening skills always need improvement. It isn’t an easy thing to do.

  3. I have been thinking about the term spiritual counselling because the term might be a bit misleading given that ‘counselling’, in the common understanding of the word, is not what we offer. The Japanese term ‘sanzen’ is what we once used and spiritual counselling was the best translation somebody came up with.

    I’m glad you have found benefit from talking to monks privately. I spend quite a bit of effort explaining to people that talking to a monk is not/need not be a problem based conversation and can include simply checking in on how ones meditation is, or is not, going. There is always an opportunity to ask a spiritual question, a question about some aspect of the teaching or simply talk about what one understands, all by way of checking with a view to letting it go and moving on.

    I’ll look around and see what other temples are saying about sanzen/spiritual councilling. I know Berkeley Priory in the US has something good in their newsletter.

    So thank’s Angie for responding to this subject.

  4. I like that a lot Iain. Great reminder too, ‘regarding’ the sounds/voices/thoughts has a whole different feel to hearing and listening doesn’t it. Sort of a reflective feel. Yes, and sometimes it is appropriate to say, ‘you must be joking’! when something said is that off the wall. We do need to remain ‘real’ while compassionate too. Perhaps being real IS compassionate.

  5. I have done sanzen many times & feel I know what it means for me. The term ‘spiritual counselling’ describes it fine for me. I guess it may mean different things to each person. I will often ask a question and wait to hear an answer – it isn’t usually advice as such although the word may roughly describe it.

    In lay terms there are many, many varieties of counselling these days. I haven’t come across one so far with a technique claiming to be ‘spiritual counselling’. For me it’s a sharing and an asking without necessarily needing or expecting an answer there and then.

    And there’s that wonderful ‘having a cup of tea with a monk’ type where things come up and insights can occur spontaneously.

  6. I am learning for myself that being interrupted with good advice, while telling my problem, seems to brake the chain of my thoughts I was involved in. Instead of talking I start listening again to what is going on in the moment. It seems that this way of being present in the conversation really helps both sides. That can be very inspiring.

  7. Yes, sharing and asking at the same time puts sanzen in a good perspective. There is an unwritten, and unspoken, assumption that one comes with the question in the background of: ‘What do you think’? It is a spiritually adult question. I also advise people to ask/speak with an internal attitude, or view, to letting ‘it’ go (what ever it might be). If one starts with that in mind there is more chance that it will actually happen! It does seem to be the case that talking and listening aids the process of acceptance, and therefore letting stuff go, melt, rot, decay.

    Oh, and I’m glad you mentioned the ‘cup of tea with a monk’. We have done a few of those in our time I seem to remember. In many ways I prefer to ‘have tea’ rather than the more formal way. But we are not that formal even so, unless it is the formal setting in a sesshin. That’s another form of refuge.

    All of what we are talking about here is Taking Refuge in the Sangha, obviously. Traditionally ‘Sangha’ referes to the monastic sangha and that’s the meaning I’m using now. We do extend the meaning to those who practice in the Way of the Buddhas. Then it gets even broader.

  8. OK Wick. Good. Talking and listening to oneself, as one talks, is a skill well worth developing. And allowing space for ‘interruptions’ is worth while also.

    Just some thoughts that come to me this evening. Please regard this as general thoughts for everybody.

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