The most crucial element of dialogue is also the one most difficult to practice. At the recent Dialogue Nights, called “The Courage to Listen: What It Means and Why It Matters,” participants discussed why listening is so hard and what they do to overcome the many obstacles to the kind of deep and compassionate listening that dialogue requires.
Held on Friday, September 23, this second in-person Dialogue Nights since the gradual lifting of Covid restrictions at the Ikeda Center was attended by nearly 30 Boston-area university students and young professionals. The event was characterized by the joy and high spirits that arise from open hearted person-to-person exchanges.
In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I said that the main motivation for the Dialogue Nights series comes from Daisaku Ikeda’s faith in the power of dialogue to heal wounds and point the way forward. “As someone who experienced first-hand the tragedies and sufferings of war,” explained Lillian, “Mr. Ikeda developed a conviction that no matter what laws or policies change, if people’s hearts don’t change we can never experience true lasting peace. And for him the way to transform people’s hearts is through life-to-life, heart-to-heart dialogue.”
Then, to introduce the evening’s exploration of the power of listening, she shared a “person on the street” video featuring thoughts on the topic from diverse people interviewed earlier in the month in Cambridge and around the Harvard campus. The interviewees appeared really engaged by the topic, and shared some thoughtful observations. Said one: “I think that it is so easy to think about a response when someone is talking so it demands so much of you to be stronger and just listen to the other person without thinking about what you want to say.” Said another: “I think having the courage to listen is having the courage to accept that sometimes you could be wrong.”
Before turning things over to Center Outreach Manager Anri Tanabe for ice breakers and the introduction of the evening’s featured speakers, Lillian offered one more key point on the effective practice of dialogue. Among the bodhisattvas often referenced by Mr. Ikeda and other Nichiren Buddhists is one called Perceiver of the World’s Sounds. She quoted Katsuji Saito in The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra to explain why: “He doesn’t merely listen to the world’s sounds,” observed Saito, “but perceives their true significance. He doesn’t listen with just his ears. He perceives with the wisdom of his whole life.”* In other words, he listens with compassion, said Lillian, which is the quality that gives dialogue its healing power.
The evening featured two speakers, Em Floyd and Ikeda Center youth committee member Sakshi Khurana, each offering brief personal reflections on the role and nature of listening in dialogue. Going first, Sakshi said she has found that when dealing with difficult perspectives, say in the media or from one’s parents, the first step in developing the courage to listen it to develop true empathy, that is, the ability to look at things from their perspective. She also drew on her experience in the field of psychology, which, in an echo of Lillian’s introductory remarks, distinguishes between “sensation and perception.” In dialogue, sensation would be the sound touching our ears, while perception is how we make sense of. She then echoed one of the video speakers, saying that, from her perspective as a school counselor, her ability to make proper, compassionate sense of what the other person is saying is hindered when she spends all of her time formulating her response instead of hearing what they are saying.
Em followed by sharing the story of their troubled relationship with their mother, and how listening has taken on many meanings during their shared journey toward tentative rapprochement. In an intriguing twist on what courage means in communication, Em explained that because of the turmoil in their mother’s life, she often would insist that Em, even when quite young, listen to her “vent through something that was happening with her.” Because of this, Em’s first act of courage was to learn to metaphorically step away and focus on personal well-being. Through this process of setting boundaries, they developed the capacity to make it a choice about when it would be healthy to listen and be there for their mom, who, as Em noted, has also “grown a lot,” creating much hope for their relationship.
Moving to the small group dialogue portion of the evening, Lillian introduced a few topics to guide their discussions. The first set related to the speaker presentations: What stood out to you from their stories? What did it make you think of in your own life? The next was based on this quote from Daisaku Ikeda: “Listening is a seemingly simple yet difficult act requiring patience and courage because we must have an underlying trust and respect for the other person.” What does it mean, asked Lillian, for you to listen with patience and courage, and do you feel you are practicing that in your life? How do we listen with “an underlying trust and respect” to someone we don’t like or agree with?
After a twenty-minute dialogue session, Lillian invited participants to offer some of the key insights from their respective groups. Here are some highlights:
- One participant spoke about the need for “patience” during difficult conversations, as well as the need to be “strategic.” If the conversation is difficult maybe you need to change “how you are interacting.” Instead of “being rigid,” one should value “flexibility” and become “like water,” which means “listening and adapting and hearing what the other person is saying, and changing around that.”
- Another said her group responded to the idea that it takes courage to practice “self-love,” that is, knowing when to “listen” and when to create more “space” for yourself. Being in a “healthy” space yourself can make a big difference in how you listen.
- Speaking for another group, one participant said we should be sensitive, and not always leap to the conclusion that others should be there to help us resolve our own emotional needs. Another key point for this group was that we do well to get past the “tone” of what someone is saying and really try to “grasp the content behind it.”
- The final participant to comment noted that when we start to wonder if someone is “committed to listening to me,” we should pause and ask ourselves if we are truly committed to “listening to them.”
In the Dialogue Nights tradition, Center Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel then came forward to lead everyone in a concluding activity of “open mic” takeaways. For this session, each participant was given a card to fill out that had two questions on it. The first was: “Who in my life do I struggle to listen to and why?” The second expanded on that, asking: “How might you courageously listen to that person?” Three participants offered quick takes that summed up the evening nicely. “I think my takeaway is really checking in with myself and doing whatever I need to get grounded before I go into tough conversations,” said one. “I need to first be nice to myself and also show some compassion or else I can’t listen to them compassionately either,” said another. The third to speak concluded that the main thing each of us needs to do is muster up “the courage to listen to one’s self.”
* Ikeda, Saito, Endo, and Suda, The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol. VI, (World Tribune Press, 2003), p. 96.