“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Interviewing Stanford University Cultivating Compassion Training facilitators Margaret Cullen and Erika Rosenberg about their experience of motherhood for my mindfulness4mothers program was a restorative process in itself.
Even after two full days of leading us in a discovery of the power of compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others, they were able to listen with gentle care and interest.
I have often been curious about how they listen that makes it so restorative for the speakers. How can I too give that gift of mindful listening to my children, my husband, and my friends — indeed, everyone I meet — so that they too bloom like flowers?
This is how Margaret and Erika listened, and indeed how we all can listen to heal and communicate care:
- Listening mindfully
When someone only gives us their partial attention, we feel the difference. Checking the phone for messages or opening the mail while someone is sharing something doesn’t feel like a gift at all. It feels like an effort. You have to work harder to be heard and it doesn’t feel like there is any real care or interest in what you are sharing. For children, it communicates that whatever else has your attention is more important than they are, surely not what we want them to feel.Margaret and Erika, long-time mediators and mindfulness teachers, rested their attention lightly and without distraction on my questions and only responded when I had finished speaking. They were 100 percent present and tuned in to our conversation.
- Listening with their whole bodies
Their whole bodies faced me, not just their heads. They didn’t sit there with their arms folded, slumped down in the chair. They had no cell phone, notepad or other objects in their hands. They were leaning slightly toward me, which subtly communicated an “approach” orientation, rather than in any way physically pulling away, withdrawing or closing off to me and our conversation.Their whole bodies reflected their act of mindful listening. Their body language was consistently communicating what their attention was too: I was important enough to merit their full attention.
- Listening softly with their eyes
This comes back to the lightness of their touch. It was neither pressured and intense or distracted or absent.They maintained soft eye contact. Mindful body language that communicates presence with kindness doesn’t avoid eye contact. But the most supportive and comfortable eye contact isn’t overpowering, either. They took breaks. I didn’t feel like I was being stared down or that I was locked in their gaze. Instead, their focus was soft enough to take in me and what I was saying, but we also felt comfortable taking breaks easily and naturally as the conversation unfolded.
- Listening with mindful body movement
Giving someone your undivided attention doesn’t mean being still like a statue, either. Although Margaret and Erika’s body language communicated mindful listening, it was not rigidly attentive.It is possible to listen without breaking your attention and still move at the same time. When someone starts walking away as you are speaking to them, even if they are encouraging you to continue, it can feel like their attention is split between listening to you and some other agenda. But Margaret and Erika were able to communicate connection with what I was saying by nods, gentle smiles, and even changes in their posture.
Rather than interrupting me, I actually felt encouraged to continue by these small gestures and movements. That was important to me. I was so thrilled to be interviewing them, I could easily have become nervous if they had not so powerfully communicated their gentle care, interest and acceptance in each of these ways.
The result? I felt connected, valued, heard and safe to speak openly. Truly a powerful gift to give anyone, and one we can offer freely.
May you, as I have, be inspired by their example and give this gift most especially to your children, who sometimes don’t have the size or status to command attention in our busy achievement-focused world.
May they too, bloom in the light of your loving mindful listening and body language.