The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction

The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction

By Rebecca Z. Shafir
Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2000. Hardback, viii + 255 pages.

Drawing on its author's experience as a speech and language pathologist and a student of the martial arts and Zen meditation, The Zen of Listening is an illuminating workshop on the art of listening well. Rebecca Shafir writes that the foundation of good listening goes deeper than techniques such as maintaining eye contact and nodding often. To listen truly well, she says, we must" dismantle the barriers to communication rooted in our prejudices and self-absorption.

Shafir says we often judge who is worth listening to (and who isn't) by their status, age, physical appearance, sex, race, our past experiences with them, and how well what they say fits with our own beliefs. Furthermore, communication with those who get by our elaborate screening process is impeded by our personal agendas, the jangle of our often negative self-talk and poor concentration skills.

Shafir offers a number of ways to counter these barriers, such as meditation, pointedly opening our minds to people and ideas that don't fit into our belief systems, and attempting to "set aside your evaluative self" and simply" be a witness" to the ideas of others.

Creating a memorable analogy, Shafir invites readers to listen to others "with the same self-abandonment as we do at the movies." "You go to the movies," she tells us, "to satisfy your curiosity, to be informed, to be entertained, to get another point of view, to experience something outside yourself." To listen in this way is to receive "the gift of another's vision of life."

Shafir offers many helpful suggestions for shaping our listening styles: being silent to encourage communication (whereas advice-giving usually shuts it down), listening under stress, and improving memory. She also gives readers a short but lucid introduction to Zen philosophy.

This is a practical book with tools for handling everyday transactions in work, school, and relationships. It is also a spiritual book, promising that: "any verbal encounter could contain a golden nugget of experience, information, or insight," and thus a portal to spiritual growth.


March/April 2002