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view of coconut tree from below
Photo by Swami Stream

In doing these interviews on prosperity, I’m learning so much about listening. This American culture knows a lot about talking, but not so much about listening. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to describe what I’m learning. This morning the words started to flow.

It’s like stepping into someone else’s world for a moment and experiencing what the world looks like in their shoes. But not really in their shoes, exactly. It’s more like standing beside them.

We each see a different version of the world. What we see comes from our experiences, our circumstances, our histories, our personalities and our responses. You and I could be in exactly the same situation, but we’d experience it differently.

It’s been such an honor and a privilege to listen to all these people tell their stories. And it’s not just the stories themselves, but the wonder of it all. The world looks so different, standing next to you. And different still, standing next to Joe over here.

What would it be like to be only one of eight black women on a college campus of 30,000 in the 1960s? What would it be like to be suddenly uprooted from your home and thrust into a new country where you don’t speak the language? What would it be like to plan a program for children that leads them step by step to experience what it must have been like to watch your world explode around you as the nearby volcano erupts? What would it be like to be a new mother in a foreign country, far from your family, where there’s no support and no network, where mothers have to juggle work and children and home virtually by themselves? What would it be like to climb a 14,000 foot mountain and be greeted by a woman who must grow everything she eats and yet shares it with whomever comes along?

These are dramatic, extraordinary stories, yes. But how much more important is it to stand next to the person experiencing ordinary things and see what the world looks like to them? The young girl starting a new school. A child struggling with a math problem. One’s spouse, grappling with a difficult situation at work. A friend who has just conquered a fear. The world looks so different standing inside these experiences, standing next to the one who is living them.

There’s another piece to listening that goes even deeper. It’s not just a matter of seeing the person’s experience—stepping into their world for a moment and seeing it from the inside—there’s also listening deeply to what’s needed now.

Sometimes what’s needed is a word of encouragement. Sometimes it’s putting words to the feeling, so the person feels heard. Sometimes what’s needed isn’t words at all, but just standing next to her so she knows she’s not alone.

When you listen with your heart, you can sense what’s needed. It’s both listening to the person and listening deeper, to the guidance in the moment. It’s almost as if each moment carries with it its own wisdom and if you listen with your heart, you can hear it. You’ll know what to do.

Even when people are really unpleasant, there’s usually something behind it. If I can hold off on my reaction to the unpleasantness, very often the root of the problem becomes clear. But if I get caught in my knee-jerk responses, I just create more turbulence and it’s harder to see what’s really going on.

I’ve learned a lot doing these interviews. And I have so much more to learn. It’s easy to listen when you’ve asked someone to tell you their story. It’s much harder on a day-to-day basis. I react. I get impatient. I get grumpy. But I’m slowly remembering to take a breath and listen for what’s needed in this moment.

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