Robert Augustus Masters: ‘The Art of Listening’

Robert Augustus Masters: ‘The Art of Listening’

Nov 18


By Robert Augustus Masters

Published in:

Issue 31, November 2007

Chapter 1, Section 5: The Art of Listening


He is speaking slowly and carefully, accurately describing the verbal dynamics of what has just happened between himself and his partner. Several times she starts to speak, but he gently waves her off, saying that when he’s done, she’ll have her turn to speak. On he goes, deftly dissecting the tiny argument they’d gotten into five or so minutes ago.

She leans toward him, her eyes sad, her jaw tightening, as if fighting to hold back her speech; she is afraid that if she interrupts him, he will very likely label her as immature, or — though he’d never say it outloud — as a bitch. So she keeps quiet. Two more minutes pass. He’s still not done.

Finally, she breaks eye contact, looking down. He shows no sign of noticing. She’s thinking about leaving him, and he doesn’t have a clue. The signs are there, and have been for a while, but he’s missing them. When he stops a minute later, she has nothing to say. Tears cover her face. They never argue again. Such brilliant cognition, such an incisive, finely nuanced mind, but such emotional retardation — this is what she writes about him, a few months after she has left him.


By Robert Augustus Masters

Listening is an art.

It asks for more than open ears, more than data-absorbing focus, and much more than agreement or disagreement. Full attention, undivided attention, wide-awake attention, attention that is not allowed to wander or shrink, is essential to listening, especially in the context of intimate relationship.

Although listening might seem like a passive activity — hence the commonplace framing of the listener as lesser than the speaker in many a masculine mind — it is actually quite dynamic. Its requisite openness is not an undiscerning or weakly-boundaried receptivity, but rather a vital clearing for deep hearing.

Listening is all about being wholly attentive to our partner, and not just to what is being said! As we hear what isn’t being said, and respond to that without speaking, we deepen our resonance with our partner, becoming an open space for the fullest possible expression of what he or she is attempting to convey to us.

As we listen so fully and with such authentic interest that our own thoughts all but disappear, we can hear our intuition’s messages loud and clear, without any dilution of the attention which we are giving to our partner. The deeper that we take this — or the deeper that we allow it to take us — the richer and more obviously multidimensional the intersubjective (or “we”) space between us and our partner.

When the ow of words ceases, don’t be too quick to break the silence. Sometimes silence has a lot to say, without any need for translation. Listening together to silence — silence being far more than the absence of sound! — can be a very rewarding practice to share.

Listening requires not only full attentiveness, but also care and patience. If others do not feel our caring for them while we’re listening to them, they probably will be less likely to speak freely to us. If they do not feel our patience — our unstrained yet dynamic waiting, our awakened surrender to making haste slowly — they usually will be less likely to take whatever time they need to say what must be said.

When we are really listening, we are not only receiving our partner’s words, pauses, somatic messages, emotional state, and corresponding energies, but are also providing them with a conducive space in which to express themselves, level upon level.

We then learn to listen not only to their interiority (their perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and so on) and to their exteriority (their body language, behavior, and so on), but also to the qualities of the intersubjective space between them and us — as well as to the familial, cultural, and planetary forces which may be influencing them. The point is not to split these up into neat categories — for they all coexist simultaneously and share considerable overlap — but to make sure that we are covering all the bases as best we can as we listen, ever letting our listening deepen.

For those in me-centered relationships, there is ordinarily not much listening. Each is so busy with his or her own concerns that there is very little room to really hear what the other is saying, or trying to say. Most of what does get through is framed in terms of what it can or can’t do for us. Here, we mostly listen to the imperatives and siren call of our own conditioning, with little or no awareness that we are doing so. And even when we do really listen, it’s usually not for long, as our interest easily wanders away.

For the we-centered codependent relationship, there’s more listening, but there’s not much depth to it. If we sense that what we are hearing may not do much for our relationship, we tend to turn a deaf ear to it. We argue less than those in me-centered relationships, but nevertheless still make agreement and disagreement the most important elements in dealing with conflict; this means that when we are listening, we usually don’t let ourselves really listen to what our partner is feeling, but rather get overfocused on the content of what they are saying, placing it all in an arena of negotiation. Thus do we keep our listening superficial — civil, perhaps, domesticated, very likely, but not very deep.

For we-centered coindependent relationships, things are generally much the same. Our listening is mostly in the service of our remaining autonomously intact, and so we tend to filter out whatever might obstruct or challenge that. Agreement and disagreement remain of paramount importance to us, with the result that we give the nonverbal dimensions of our partner’s sharing not much of a hearing, except to the degree that it preserves our relationship and our independence within it. Only in the maturing of this stage, as our need for autonomy and our need for intimate communion come more into balance, do we start really listening to our partner.

For the being-centered relationship, listening is a given. It is not a should, nor a duty, but rather an utterly natural, intimacy-enhancing practice. Both partners enjoy, and consistently enjoy, listening to each other. Conversation is almost always easy, and listening almost always effortless. Agreement and disagreement are, with minimal fuss, kept peripheral to openly felt resonance and mutuality; both partners usually can, with ease, stand apart from their need to be right, viewing it with self-illuminating care. Passionate expression is not avoided; both listen to the other, no matter what their state is (and no matter how intensely it may be expressed), and clearly want to do so.

Listening can get very deep here; psychic attunement is common, with both often knowing what the other one is about to say, to the point where it’s no longer amazing, but just the way things are. In a sense, partners here are, when in each other’s company, almost always listening to each other, on more levels than meet the eye and ear.

So how to work with all this?

Let’s start with the me-centered couple, imagining that they are in the presence of a suitably skilled psychotherapist, which of course presumes that they have some interest in dealing with their difficulties. We can also, as we read this, let ourselves more fully feel what is me-centered in us, as well as in our relationship.

First of all, in our hypothetical psychotherapy session there is very little point, at least initially, in actually pointing out the characteristics of listening at each stage of relationship. It’s not time to pull out any maps, other than very simple, nonthreatening ones, like those that clearly distinguish between surface and depth, open and closed, abusive and nonabusive, attentive and non-attentive.

This can — and needs to — be presented in a way that does not reinforce shame; after all, surface and depth (as well as open and closed, abusive and nonabusive, and so on) are signifiers which apply to an enormous variety of situations. Making sure that the couple understands the difference between surface and depth (as well as between open and closed, abusive and nonabusive, and so on) in relationship is usually an easy (and gracefully evolving) undertaking, both creating some rapport and introducing the bare rudiments of listening.

A short — and I mean short — talk about the importance of listening might follow. If one member of the couple, after having heard this, interrupts the other without any admission of having done so, such behavior will be quickly pointed out, with the added suggestion that the interrupter practice not interrupting the other for the rest of the session. And on it goes. Once things get heavier, with reactivity and accusations showing up, a more overtly in-charge presence is needed to keep the session on track. Now what is being listened to is not just language, but also feeling.

Let’s now temporarily leave the therapy chambers and see what might happen when the couple is at home, with no one else around. Probably a lot of reactivity, with both quoting the therapist as backing them up. At best, they might notice if they are being listened to, or if they actually are listening; even a moment or two of this can be very helpful. They might also notice, however eetingly, their investment in being in power, or being right, or being on top — or perhaps the opposite.

Now back to the therapy room: This may be a good time to teach some very basic mindfulness. One person might be practicing breath awareness, for example, while the other is delivering their usual repertoire of complaints and accusations. During this, the therapist can keep the meditative one on track, so that the other’s reactivity does not so easily get under their skin.

Gradually, in this and other ways, the reactivity of both is exposed in as non-shaming a manner as possible, so that it becomes, however slowly, an object of awareness. Each learns not only to listen more closely to the other, but also to themselves. As they do so, they start to enter the territory of we-centered (and, in embryonic form, being-centered) relatedness.

Those in we-centered codependent relationship usually have some listening skills, but most of the time these are kept in the service of the compromise-based let’s-not-rock-the-boat nature of their relationship. Going deeper here is not easy, for the couple is likely dug in, holed up in their pseudo-sanctuary of negotiated comforts. But because they are not fully alive in their relationship — diplomacy can, after all, be very deadening — and have an investment in remaining like this, more depth will be probably be difficult to access. Getting them to listen to themselves is as much a challenge as getting them to listen to the deeper needs of their partner.

However, as soon as each hears the other’s need for more depth and openness, and hears the lack of such depth and openness not as their fault but for what it actually is, progress can be made. As they leave the “safety” of their codependent connection, fear will usually arise, but sooner or later so too will excitement, perhaps accompanied by the insight that most fear is just excitement in drag.

Some couples may be so addicted, however, to their compromises and dug-in security, that movement is all but impossible. For them, all that can be done — and it’s no small thing! — is to help them see what they are doing and what is possible, and leave them to make their choices based upon this.

Couples in we-centered coindependent relationships are usually easier to work with, mostly because they have more commitment to taking care of themselves. Getting them to listen to themselves is not the challenge; getting them to listen to the deeper needs of their partner is. Their overattachment to autonomy must be slowly but surely dismantled, while taking into account the unaccustomed vulnerability they will feel as they shift into a deeper interdependence.

What they must learn to do is expand their circle of self to include, and fully include, each other. Such expansion will really stretch their boundaries; any rigidity here will be experienced as pain, pain that must be entered into until it releases its grip and allows a psychoemotional elasticity.

Initially, couples at this stage will say they don’t want to surrender their freedom; later, they will realize that what needs to be surrendered is not their freedom, but rather their entrapment in their so-called freedom.

“Freedom through intimacy” will at first just be a concept to them, perhaps interesting, but not much more. Later — as they listen more closely to what is actually going on in their relationship — it will not be a concept, but a living reality and opportunity, an invitation to enter a deeper life.

And what about listening in being-centered relationships? It is utterly natural. Listening is not engaged in now and then, but almost always. The mind of the one listening is ordinarily quite quiet, uncluttered with thoughts, not kicking into activity until it is time to speak. Agreement or disagreement with what the other is saying is kept peripheral to feeling, directly and deeply feeling, what the other is saying. There is an unforced, steady empathic resonance that makes communication very easy most of the time. Even when there is discord, as when anger arises, the communication continues and its discordant elements are given room to speak up, without, however, being allowed to run the show.

What helps keep things on course when things get rough or messy is the radically deep trust between the two. If one tells the other that he or she is not listening, listening usually occurs very quickly. There’s no power struggle here, no battle for dominance, so both members of the couple have no investment in winning; in fact, the whole drama of winning and losing, of being overrun or defeated, does not get any stage time.

There is no need to do practices to get back on track; being aware of being off track provides more than enough impetus to get back on track, and quickly.

Listen. What do you hear? Now listen even more closely. Sometime in sessions, following very deep work, when clients are digesting what’s happened, I have them close their eyes, do an awareness practice for a few minutes, and then listen to the silence (my therapy/group room is very quiet) for a bit, perhaps also letting themselves feel its presence, both all around and inside them.

Listening to silence is not the same as listening to the mere absence of sound. Listen. Silence just said something. Don’t lose it in the translation. Silence does speak.

Listening is undividedly attentive, dynamic receptivity, as respectful as it is empathetic.

Listen until there is no self-contained listener, no self-conscious center of hearing, but only listening. And don’t forget to listen while you are speaking; listening to our listener only deepens our connection. Listen. There’s so much being said to you, through you, by you, for you, as you, at this very moment…



Transformation Through Intimacy (book)
• Robert Augustus Masters: Spiritual Bypassing
• Robert Augustus Masters Website
• The Masters Center for Spiritual Transformation

The Healthy Relationship Preamble
• The Pathwork on Relationships
Pulse on Relationships


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