Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening
By Robert J. Burrowes
27 August, 2014
The word 'listening' has many meanings and the context in which it is
done will often determine the level of concentration that is required
for one to be considered to be listening.
Many people work while listening to music playing in the background.
People often talk in small groups where there is little real listening
by anyone as people compete for the opportunity to talk. A compulsive
talker will 'listen' only as long as it takes for their fear to trigger
the urge to talk themselves, ostensibly in response to what has just
been said. And an audience might listen to a lecture, play, concert or
film with considerable attention, partly because they know there is no
opportunity for them to talk and because, to a greater or lesser extent,
they are being entertained.
These are all forms of listening but I want to talk about listening as
an art – what I call 'nisteling' – and why and when this should be used.
When someone speaks, apart from uttering words, they also convey
feelings (which might be very subtle and even hidden in their body
language). Therefore, any communication consists of intellectual and
emotional content and both of these elements need to be heard if you
wish to fully understand what a speaker is trying to convey. Given that
human beings are taught to focus on the intellectual content of any
communication and, consequently, learn to fear its emotional content, it
is not surprising that few people are naturally good listeners and that
few people have benefited from the effort made in recent decades to
teach people more about how to listen through, for example, workshops
that teach 'reflective listening'.
In fact, most of us learn to unconsciously screen out the emotional
content of the communications of other people. Why? Because listening to
the feelings of another person is likely to 'trigger' feelings in the
listener, and that can be frightening. For example, if someone is angry
with you, do you find it easy to calmly listen to their anger and then
reflect, for example, 'You sound very angry that I did not listen to
you' and, if necessary, to then listen more while they tell you just how
angry they are with you? Most people 'listening' in this and many other
circumstances are immediately frightened into a defensive reaction which
exacerbates the speaker's sense of being unheard and their anger in
response to this. And the 'listener' is now scared and needs listening
about their own fear as well. So the competition to 'get the listening',
usually manifesting in what is popularly called an 'argument', quickly
spirals down into 'no-one is listening'.
So what is 'nisteling'? Nisteling requires me, as the listener, to pay
deliberate, focused attention to the person who is speaking so that I
can hear what is spoken and also identity and interpret what is
'underneath' the spoken words. This will often be a feeling that I can
detect accompanying the words but it might also be some body language,
such as an eye movement or subtle gesture, that I notice. If I am paying
attention that is careful enough, I will be able to comprehend the
emotional meaning of the hidden message: it might be sadness, fear,
anger, pain, happiness or any number of other feelings and it is this or
these feelings, more than the words, that the person actually needs to
be heard, even if they do not know this themselves.
To reiterate: If you cannot nistel to someone's feelings – explicitly
expressed or as a subtle underlay to their words – then you cannot
understand all of what they are trying to communicate. And, in order to
nistel well, it is necessary to be unafraid of any of your own feelings
that might be raised by their communication.
If you are nisteling, you will also have no trouble using the context to
identify the appropriate response. If a child (or adult) is crying, the
powerful response is to let them cry (while feeling your own feelings,
if any, triggered by their crying) and to reflect 'You sound sad' which,
hopefully, will get them crying more deeply. Ignoring, comforting,
reassuring, distracting, laughing at, ridiculing, screaming at, hitting,
restraining or punishing a crying child is a fearful response that
interrupts evolution's healing mechanism – emotional expression – which,
in this case, is designed to allow full recovery from some trauma (small
Similarly, nisteling means letting someone be scared or happy or angry
or anxious or frustrated or however they feel. Importantly, nisteling
also requires us to let them act in accordance with these feelings
(which doesn't mean that you cannot defend yourself if their behaviour
adversely impacts on you although, it is worth emphasising, nisteling is
your most powerful first option in self-defense). Evolution intended our
feelings to be centrally involved in determining our behaviour and it is
violent to prevent someone acting in accordance with their own
Self-will. Moreover, chronically interfering with a child's Self-willed
behaviour will guarantee that the child becomes increasingly
dysfunctional: Evolution did not intend a human being to be obedient
(although adults who have been terrorised into surrendering their own
Self-will often seek unconscious 'compensatory' control of others).
I am well aware that what I am suggesting here runs counter to most of
what you have ever experienced and that it raises any number of
complications. There are, obviously, many mundane reasons for not
nisteling to a child. How many parents are able to nistel to a child say
that it doesn't want to go to school? Nisteling to this might be quite
inconvenient for the parent. And frightening if it becomes the norm. For
most parents, it is easier to ignore the child and to fall back on
violence: force the child to attend school.
So why am I suggesting that we nistel, which includes letting children
act in accord with their own Self-will? Because I believe that this is
the essential foundation step in any strategy to end human violence (in
all of its manifestations). For a thorough explanation and elaboration
of this point, see 'Why Violence?' http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence and
'Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice'
As you have probably realised by now, nisteling requires a powerful
individual: someone capable of taking responsibility for feeling their
own feelings and trusting others (including children) to feel and act on
theirs as well. I know that we cannot all do it yet. But each person who
makes the commitment to work in this direction functionally undermines
the violence in our world by helping to create powerfully Self-aware
individuals who are able to act in accord with their own Self-will and
let others do the same. And this is the only basis for creating a truly
nonviolent society because powerful individuals have no trouble
negotiating ways to cooperate.
If you are interested in helping to create this society, you are also
welcome to consider signing online 'The People's Charter to Create a
Nonviolent World' http://thepeoplesnonviolencecharter.wordpress.com
The most important form of attention that any human individual requires
is nisteling. And nisteling is the most important gift we can give
another individual to assist their personal journey to Self-awareness.
If we nistel to a child, they will learn to nistel to themself.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding
and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in
an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a
nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of 'Why Violence?'
http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence His email address is email@example.com
and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com
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