Above all, Siddhartha learned from the river how to listen; how to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Everyone who listens deeply, I believe, listens in the same way. Those who talk about, or teach or write about listening, on the other hand, do it each in their own way. Hundreds of ways, really, with a thousand variations on the theme. This is because the practice of listening deeply is almost impossible to teach, and, in the end, I suspect, not fully understood.

Siddhartha, the fictional hero of Hesse’s novel, journeys his entire life in search of the truth. But no teacher (even his non-fictional doppelganger, the Buddha) can transmit to him the wisdom he discovers near the end of his life: how to listen.

Recognizing that most of us don’t have a lifetime to wander in the wilderness, teachers throughout history — especially in the past century — have tried to package it or conceptualize it in a way that they can pass it on. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers are two modern giants who took shots institutionalizing the art of listening, or at least packaging it up for use as a standardized healing tool.

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Josef Breuer was the Steven Wozniak of modern psychology. Wozniak, as you no doubt know, was Steve Jobs’ less celebrated partner in the founding of Apple Computer. Breuer was a Viennese doctor in the late 19th century. Like Wozniak, he had a good job in his field, but was also interested in rapidly developing events in the scientific hotbed of Vienna at that time. Besides treating the ill, Breuer tinkered in physiology and neurobiology and made some major discoveries in those fields. But his place in the history of modern psychology was assured through an experimental psychological technique he pioneered in treating a woman he called Anna O. Quite simply, the technique Breuer invented was to have Anna O. talk about the things that were bothering her. Anna O. herself dubbed it “The Talking Cure.”

Like Wozniak, Breuer teamed up with a genius who took his ideas from kitchen-table tinkering to a world-changing enterprise. Freud was (among other things) a marketing genius of the Steve Jobs caliber. He understood that a simple powerful idea could be reinvented again and again, year after year, with new bells and whistles, an occasional breakthrough new product introduction, and, above all, a combative hostility toward anyone trying to run in another direction with your idea. Freud’s brand name, of course, was psychoanalysis — a towering intellectual edifice supporting a worldwide psychiatric movement, built on the simple technique of listening.

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If Freud was the Steve Jobs of psychology, Rogers was its Martin Luther. Half a century after Freud began evangelizing, Rogers argued for doing away with his dark and complex psychic structures. You don’t have to understand the way peoples’ drives and defenses operate to heal them, Rogers felt. You just have to listen, and understand what they are feeling. It’s the listening itself that opens the door to emotional healing. Psychic wounds are like physical wounds, they heal naturally when exposed to the open air.

Rogers also felt that listening ability, like grace, was attainable without all the complicated rituals and dogma of psychoanalysis. What you need in order to listen this way is not theory, but compassion, genuineness and, in Roger’s famous phraseology, “unconditional positive regard.” To use Siddartha’s words, to listen “with a waiting, open soul.”

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For much of his career, Rogers wrote for and taught psychotherapists. In the early ‘60s, however, in his breakthrough book On Becoming a Person, he was “writing for people — nurses, housewives, people in the business world, priests, ministers, teachers, youth.”

In an effort to make “active listening” teachable to a broad range of professionals — as well as spouses, parents and friends — Rogers formulated five rules: Listen for message content, listen for feelings, respond to feelings, note all cues, and paraphrase and restate.

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This last rule of active listening — “paraphrase and restate” — has been the target of a lot of jokes from people who subscribe to more complicated theories. Here is the parody:

Patient: I’ve been feeling down in the dumps since my wife left me.

Therapist: Hmmm. You’ve been feeling quite sad. Hmm. Since about the time your wife left? Hmm. I hear how that must be for you.

But Roger’s reflective techniques, while simple, were never simplistic. In fact, listening deeply in order to heal old wounds, or clear space for a negotiation, or just clear the air with a friend, is an incredibly difficult thing. Even those of us who can listen empathically to each other for a period, find it bumpy going as people describe feelings that are unfamiliar to us, or seem unreasonable, or even worse, seem like a problem they are having with us.

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I practice the art of listening daily in my job. Both jobs, actually, my psychotherapy practice and my divorce mediation practice with Laura. I’m getting better at it. I learn again and again how unhelpful my good ideas are, my solutions and wisdom about what people need to do in order for their lives to work. And how when I listen carefully enough — without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions — people relax and come through with deep wisdom of their own.

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So, it’s easier to listen badly than listen well. This is why it’s so rare that we actually help anyone by listening. Men are particularly ineffectual here, because they listen for information, not understanding. We screen for data as we listen to your suffering, in order to fix the problem at hand. Deborah Tannen, who has spent much of an illustrious career studying the way people communicate, calls the way men and women listen to each other “cross-cultural communication,” like French and English. More to the point, both genders have severe limitations on their ability to stay focused and tolerant as they listen to the suffering of others.

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Here’s an example of what happens most of the time when we express our suffering to someone close.

Betty: Honey, I’m feeling really unappreciated right now. I came home from work, watered the yard, fixed dinner, and you wander in and say nothing. I’m not the maid, you know!

Fred: What!?! Unappreciated!? I bought you flowers on Saturday, took you to dinner last night and I’m currently planning a party in your honor. It’s never enough with you, is it?

Betty was trying to be tactful in her approach, using feeling words instead of attacking, although a little of the bitterness crept in with the maid comment. What Fred failed to hear in Betty’s complaint was the echo of a childhood wound inflicted by a narcissistic mother who used Betty to take care of her own emotional needs, rather than giving Betty the unconditional love a child needs for healthy development.

What Betty failed to see in Fred’s angry response were the signs of an enduring grief from his childhood. Fred always fell short in his perfectionist father’s eyes. Fred was never enough. As children, both Betty and Fred were left yearning for unconditional approval that never came.

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When old childhood pain like that is activated by some trigger in the present, couples quickly dial into their own suffering and become deaf to that of their partner. All couples get into this loop, by the way, or some variation of it. And listening is the way out! But, as noted relationship researcher John Gottman has observed frequently, even people highly trained in listening skills have conflicts in their relationships. They know how to listen, he argues, but in the painful moments of conflict when they need those skills most, they almost never employ them. This kind of listening takes a lifetime to learn, and we still often get it wrong.

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Both Rogers’ “person-centered” approach to healing, and Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques have been backburnered by the mainstream psychological establishment for many years, in favor of behavioral techniques and others (as evidenced here). Freud has survived, with his trademark cigar, as a cultural icon, and Rogers through his tremendous impact on business communication, political dialogue and negotiation, and parenting (for example, the international program Parent Effectiveness Training and the book series How to Talk So Your Children Will Listen are direct descendents of Rogerian training).

But a strange thing is happening lately among mental health opinion leaders. Psychoanalytical thinking, along with “process- experiential” techniques similar to Rogers’, are being discussed again. I think this is due to several trends, including our ability to plumb the depths of the subconscious mind, albeit very crudely, with neuroimaging techniques. Deep listening as a healing science is being quietly revived, accompanied by new ideas and new techniques.

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As an art, I believe, deep listening is perennial, and we will find again what we have found and lost so many times before. For all of us, as teachers, relatives, managers, friends and family members, listening, understanding and acceptance — while no easy task — is more powerful in healing us than any wisdom we can convey.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.