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The Art of Listening | Kathleen Macferran

Kathleen Macferran explores the power of listening to open doors and to potentially transform people's lives.

Full talk transcript

It was on stages like this where I learned to deeply listen. As a conductor, I would surround myself with musicians and together we would listen our way into this intricate dance of co-creation. And every set of ears was critical in that process, and I was so moved by the beauty that I would experience when we listen deeply that way. But the music didn’t always sound beautiful. I mean there were times when we were out of tune, we were out of sync, and the music sounded harsh. But when that happened, we paused, and we listened to the space between us. Because when pitches don't align with each other, there are these beats in the air, it’s like this interference, this clashing of the frequencies, and as the pitches come more into alignment, the beats start to slow down, and eventually they go away and you’re just left with this smooth, sweet sound. And in that process, there's no sense that somebody's right and somebody’s wrong.

The goal is simply to come into alignment. I was moved by the beauty that I heard while I got to listen from the podium, and I wanted to experience that beauty in other places of my life. Especially in the places where beauty was hardest to find, like prisons, schools, homeless shelters. So I started to wonder: Can listening be a pathway to beauty once I step off the podium? Well, I wanted to find out, so about 14years ago, I walked out of the concert hall and into Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication trainings.

I learned that listening is seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, but not necessarily agreeing with it.

And there I learned that it's the qualitive listening that is the key to hearing what people care about, no matter how they express it through their words or in their interactions. I learned that listening is seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, but not necessarily agreeing with it. And I learned that we can come back into sync with one another. We can transform those beats of disconnection into a sweet music of understanding and compassion, through conversation alone. And that was the beauty that I was looking for off the podium. What I didn't realize was how big the scale a possibility really was, because we can all listen differently in this world and change the course of events.

Listening is fundamental to dialogue, and dialogue is a prerequisite to change. So what would happen if we all listened our way into a new era of conversation where everyone wins when the conversations are done. It was when I went into men's and women’s prisons with the Freedom Project that I really began to understand just how listening to what people care about could transform lives, even lives in prison. And I’ve realized that it was really their desperation to be heard for their pain that landed many of those men and women behind bars.

One time I was in the men's prison and there was one man in particular in a group of about 30 of us who was really hungry for some connection with his own daughter. So I took on the role of his daughter in a role-play, and together we listened to try to figure out what it was that she might be wanting. And so in the role-play this man kept offering to buy me CDs and other things, hoping to repair that broken relationship, but finally as his daughter, I just blurted it out and said: "Dad, I don't want you to buy me anything. Just talking like this, having you here is what's important to me. That's what I've wanted my whole life. I want you to see me and know me for who I am, and I want to know you. That's what I'm hungry for."

And something happened in that man's eyes at that moment, and then he went completely silent. And he stayed silent for three days. And I thought, "Oh, my God, what have I done?" But in the closing circle of our workshop, he read a letter that he had written to all of us, and in that letter he said: "I never realized that my presence can matter to another person. I never realized I had value." He spoke for many of the men in that room. It seems a little strange, but somehow when one person's heard, we’re all changed. And several other men in that workshop then reached out beyond the razor wire and beyond the walls to their own sons and daughters, in attempts to restore relationships that had been ruptured by violence.

Recently, one of the men received correspondence from his daughter, and in that correspondence she was lashing out in a lot of pain. He took a deep breath, he remembered how precious that connection was to him, and then he responded with empathy. She wrote back: "Sorry, Dad, it's just that you were the only person that I knew would actually hear me, and I really needed to vent. But your listening, your understanding, helped me find a way forward, so I love you."

Now, it's experiences like these that remind us that listening restores relationship. It restores a sense that every life matters. It restores a sense of wholeness, by weaving those fragmented perspectives back together again. It's our willingness to listen that just might shift things, it might make what seems impossible, possible. It's not unusual for prison workshops to end with someone saying: "Wow, if I would have known this when I was growing up, I wouldn't be here today."  When I first heard that, I thought: "Really? Could that be true?" What if we listen to our youth and heard what was really important to them? Would it support them making some life-serving choices that would keep them out of prison?

I was thinking about that as I volunteered with a fourth-grade classroom. I was working with a 10-year-old boy, and he said: "You know what, it doesn't really matter if I do this assignment or not." Now most of us would be tempted to say something like, "Sure, you can do it," or to stress the importance of doing homework. Right? But in that moment, I chose to listen to the meaning behind the words. And so I asked him if it seemed kind of pointless, maybe did he just want to have something that was more useful in his life. He said: "Yeah, most of it seems like a waste of time." So I asked if he'd rather be spending his time hanging out with his friends, and that's when he told me he didn't have any friends, that the other kids at the school were being mean to him. And so I guessed at that point that maybe that was a lonely place for him to be in. I wondered if he wanted it to be different, and he told me it was going to be different. He wasn't coming back, that he was going to kill himself.

I chose to keep listening because I knew that he needed companionship then, more than ever.

Now, it's really hard to hear something like that and not react with alarm, not to jump up, and call in the teachers and the parents and the social workers, but I chose to keep listening because I knew that he needed companionship then, more than ever. So I asked him if maybe the hurt felt so big because he wanted friends and a sense of belonging, and did he just want that hurt to go away? He said, yeah, that was true. And then I wondered if he wanted other people to know how much he was hurting, to know what that was like for him. He said: "Well, that would be pretty much impossible because no one cares."  So I asked him: "Do you have a sense right now that I care?" And he said: “Yeah, I guess you do because you're listening to me, but you know no one else seems to even notice. They just want me to do whatever it is they want me to do.”

So, in a sense, that boy was in his own kind of prison, locked into the thinking that it was his performance rather than his feelings that mattered. So I checked it out. I said: "Hey, if I’m getting you right, are you telling me that you would like people to know what’s going on inside, care more about that than they do about the homework?" And he nodded. So I asked him: "Do you want to know what's going on inside me right now? I think I'm wanting the same things that you’re wanting. I'd like you to have friends that you can talk to about your feelings. And I'd like you to know that people care. And I am pretty sure that we can find a way to help make this hurt go away. That’d be a lot better than you hurting yourself. Do you want to explore that with me?"

And we did. This boy received the ongoing support that he needed. He finished school, he's developing his art form and he's got a job in the community now. Someone tuning in and listening without trying to give advice or to fix it was pivotal for him during that dark time. The cost to me: About 20 minutes of my time. There was no big budget or grant writing that was necessary. No committees work or no gathering of musicians together, and no waiting for months and months until all the logistics got in place until we could make music. All it took was making a choice at the moment that the opportunity arose to give my full presence to this boy's feelings and his needs, to his despair and his dreams, and to show up with authenticity and love. And that part was easy because when we listen we can't help but love.

There was another time in my life when I really treasured the power of listening, and that was when my own father journeyed through dementia. There were some other people in his life at the time that said they had lost him years earlier because they lost access to the man that they knew. But rather than give up on our relationship, I chose to listen to the meaning behind his words, rather than the facts. And we had a sweet connection that lasted through his final years.

One of the last conversations that I had with my 83-year-old father before he died started when he leaned forward and he whispered: “Hey, I’ve decided not to retire.” And I said: "Really, Dad!? Is that because you loved your life as a minister, and you’re so grateful to have lived a life that was filled with meaning and purpose?" “That’s it,” he said. “And now you and your brother are carrying on that work.” “So, when you see me going into prisons and you see my brother helping to make the world a safer place, are you delighted that you've been able to pass your values down to us? Is that what you mean?” “That’s it. Exactly,” he said. “And I'm so proud of you both.”

Because I was able to hear the dreams in his heart that were not caught up by the dementia in his mind, our connection remained vibrant and clear.

At that moment, he leaned forward and he kissed me like he had done so many times during my life. Because I was able to hear the dreams in his heart that were not caught up by the dementia in his mind, our connection remained vibrant and clear. 

Now as you've heard in so many of these stories, listening is not necessarily the absence of talking, but it is the foundation of talking. I listen my way into the words that I’m going to say, I listen to the beating of my own heart. Are my words ringing true? Are they expressing what I most care about? Do I feel flushed with excitement, or is my throat tight because I’m holding something back? All of these are beautiful moments when I’m deeply listening to myself. When I’m listening to the music that's inside me about what I most care about, and letting that flow into my presence and my words.

Now, I’ve been studying listening for decades, and only to discover that listening is nothing that we really need to study. It’s our natural birthright that we’re all wired for. And any one of us can lean forward and into a conversation and say: "Now, what is it that you'd like me to hear that you don’t think I've heard yet?" And any one of us can let go of stories and our assumptions, and just give our full presence to what matters most. So, to be truthful, one of the reasons I'm standing here trying to put words to something that lives beyond words is because I believe that we need one another, and listening is the most powerful act of love that I know. Thank you for listening.

Kathleen Macferran


Speaker Bio

Kathleen Macferran holds a vision for a peaceful, just and sustainable world. She has worked as a Certified Trainer for the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) since 2003 and serves as an assessor for this international organization by supporting candidates through a community-based certification process. Communication and conflict resolution exploration is a passion of hers. Macferran has worked with organizations and individuals, including businesses, schools, colleges, community groups, faith-based communities, hospitals, families, prison inmates and correctional and law enforcement employees. Read more