Sunday, August 22, 2010

Listening without ego

I have a couple blog posts in the works, but the topics are tricky and what I wish to say about them is elusive. So I thought I would turn to something more direct, such as responding to one of the topic suggestions I received via comment in this earlier post. And the question/suggestion is one posed by Ricercar who asked: “Why are some people so sensitive to feedback (good or bad), almost to the point of being dysfunctional?”

At the heart of this question is a desire to understand others. What remains hidden within this desire, however, is the motivation for wanting to gain this understanding. In other words, why do we need to understand others? And often the actual reason we have for understanding another person’s behavior is the wrong reason; if we’re honest, most of the time the reason is selfish – we think we ought to know despite the fact there is no good reason for us needing to know.

This brings to mind an experience I went through many years ago while I was working at a residential treatment facility for children diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. The boys in the unit where I worked were there for a variety of reasons, but most had been abused.

Right there, all of you reading this have brought forward in your mind a concept of what that means – being abused. Maybe It’s a general understanding, or perhaps it’s a personal understanding either because you are a victim of abuse or you know someone personally who experienced abuse. And based on these different levels of “understanding,” it is very likely that you also have a continuum within your mind regarding the validity of each level of understanding. In other words, if you’ve personally experienced abuse, you will likely consider your understanding of what “abuse” means to be superior to someone whose understanding of abuse is based solely on reading the book, “Sybil.”

This is a bit of a digression, but nonetheless worth bearing in mind. Because if you’re a victim of abuse, your understanding of this violence is not superior to someone who has not been abused – it’s just different. But back to my story.

There was a boy in the unit who was very neurotic. He handled praise very poorly. He would lap up the praise, but afterward frequently do something negative that would result in some form of restriction. It was almost like he didn’t believe he was worthy of any praise and to prove that, he would intentionally do something negative.

Following a therapy session, this boy returned to the unit and went to his room; nothing odd there because it was quiet time and all the boys in the unit were in their rooms. But this boy had a plan. My co-worker on the shift, a woman, was conducting the room checks when she found the boy had attempted to hang himself with his belt. There was no physical injury, no need to rush him to a doctor. My co-worker tried to find out what prompted this, but the boy wouldn’t talk. In this line of work, we often did a lot of tag-teaming; if one staff member was unsuccessful dealing with a kid, we let someone else try.

It was the most surreal conversation I’ve had with someone. The boy did open up to me, but he would only talk to me from beneath his bed. Turned out that during his therapy session, he learned that his mother was coming later in the week to visit him. No wonder he wouldn’t talk to my co-worker, a woman. The boy didn’t want to see his mother – he hated her – but believed he wasn’t being given a choice. So rather than meet his mother, he’d rather die.

Why would you rather die than see her? I asked. Asking a question that begins with “why” is a dangerous one because more often than not, such a question is an invitation to receive a shrug of the shoulders as the response. Any parent can tell you that when a child is caught misbehaving and the child is asked why he or she did the deed, the most common response is “I don’t know.” But this boy told me why.

He hated his mother, a mean-spirited alcoholic bitch of a woman who whored herself during repeated excursions. During these periods of drunken promiscuity, particularly when he was very young, she would lock him up in his room for days without access to food or a bathroom. She would leave newspaper on the floor as if he were a puppy that hadn’t been housebroken. And when she would return to find the mess in his room, she would fly into a rage and shove his face into the excrement.

Listening to this, many of the maladaptive behaviors this boy engaged in, particularly his intentional sabotage of any praiseworthy actions, made sense: I understood the why. But I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that his maladaptive behaviors remained maladaptive, his anti-social behavior was still anti-social; no matter how horrible his mother had been, it didn’t excuse him. It did, however, allow me to be compassionate and empathetic.

Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of being able to listen deeply and use loving speech. When we speak with someone, especially if it is someone we care about, and the other person is aloof or sharp with us, or even seems to be unable to accept what we are saying, our initial response can be one of confusion, even of feeling hurt. But if we can stop this selfish thinking and bring to mind the thought, “this person is suffering,” rather than dwelling on “this person is a prick,” we are opening up an opportunity for us to be compassionate and beneficial. When we are in that frame of mind, we can listen deeply and with loving kindness.

My recollection of the boy who didn’t want to see his mother is an extreme example. I’m not trying to say that all people who can’t handle praise are victims of abuse. What I am saying is that suffering is at the heart of any maladaptive or antisocial behavior we encounter. We don’t need to know why someone is unable to handle praise or criticism; we just need to open our ears and eyes and avoid viewing this behavior as a personal affront. In fact, directly questioning someone about their puzzling response only draws increased attention to it, likely leading to increased anxiety and more inappropriate behavior.

By practicing the Four Brahmaviharas – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity – we become less obsessed with our egos and simultaneously become more beneficial to others. This is not an easy practice, but it is a critical one.

In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72), the Buddha tells the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta that the Dhamma is deep and very difficult to understand – that it cannot be understood through reasoning alone. I could have read about that boy’s background in his clinical file; everything he told me was in it. But listening to him tell me all this, his voice coming from beneath his bed (it was like he was returning to the darkness of the womb), I was able to experience this information in a way that no reading of a clinical file could reproduce.

All I had to do was be there.


  1. To correctly listen without ego, I have to shut my mind down from trying to figure out the appropriate response. 90% of what I say has a whole lot of "Me" wrapped up in it. I am beginning to think that talking is just the ego attempting to reassert itself. I will continue to learn NOT to talk, so I can really listen.

  2. "In fact, directly questioning someone about their puzzling response only draws increased attention to it, likely leading to increased anxiety and more inappropriate behavior."

    Something I loose sight of too often.

    Nice post Richard. A good reminder.

  3. I just made a post on something very similar. It sucks when you're afraid of your own parents, it should be like that. I try my hardest to listen without Ego, to listen to the person speaking and talk to them and not at them. Wonderful post,