Sensitive people are gifted at deep listening, and we naturally offer this gift to others. But we also need to make sure we receive lots of deep listening ourselves.
I haven’t met a cat who could resist catnip. And I haven’t met a highly sensitive person who could resist a deep, meaningful connection with another person. We crave listening and being listened to because it helps us connect to our inner truth—that is, to our spiritual selves.
To understand how this inner dynamic operates, we first need to grasp that our HSP energy takes a different path towards action than it does for non-HSPs. Non-HSPs prefer to act, then evaluate the results. For HSPs, by contrast, the willingness to act typically comes only after we’ve had time to deeply process the possible consequences of the action. I call this pattern the introspection/action loop.
In addition, HSPs also need processing time to recover from the overarousal we experience when we are exposed to more stimuli than our nervous systems can handle. In this case, processing helps restore our inner peace, which is both a prerequisite to and a manifestation of spiritual connection.
Either way, though, we need to process. It’s our nature to take in many subtle details and aspects of our world and of our experiences, and we need a way to digest all that so we can discern the right way forward. This “right way forward” is another manifestation of our connection to our spiritual selves.
No wonder we need deep listening: it helps us connect to our inner truth. In the same way, when we listen deeply to others, we help them connect to their truth. Both are catnip for us. Given or received, deep listening meets our need for meaning, as we participate in an exchange that helps us live our values in the world and helps others do the same.
How does listening relate to self-connection?
Why do we need each other for this listening? Can’t we just go inside and think? Yes, of course. But with the right kind of listening, we can go much deeper. And, with issues that are complex or intense, we may need company to make any headway at all.
Do you remember the movie Apollo 13? Thousands of miles out in space, the three astronauts face imminent suffocation due to the failure of a CO2 filter. Back at Mission Control, Ed Harris orders the crew-cut engineering team to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The engineers rush off to find boxes containing duplicates of every object the astronauts have on board. And then—they dump all the boxes out onto a big table.
That’s what deep listening can do for an HSP. Being deeply listened to is like having a big table on which you can spread out your “stuff.” In fact, it is even better than that. Some of our inner processes simply can’t form “inside the box,” but given enough space, they can expand so we can see or sense them more clearly.
Compared to that, trying to process complex issues by yourself is like rummaging in a box full of stuff. All the objects are tangled together, hampering your ability to separate them. You can’t see clearly. You get frustrated. And you end up out of alignment with our values.
When we lose touch with our values, HSPs can easily become anxious or depressed. We are environmentally susceptible, after all, and this is as true of our internal environment as it is true of our external one. At times like this, we need the support of a good listener who can create a friendly “environment” for us.
HSP spirituality and the need for meaning
Highly sensitive people are hardwired to look for meaning, beyond the basics of “who,” “what,” and “when.” We are deeply concerned with “Why?” and “What are the implications of this?” and “What is the meaning of this for me, others, the world?” And, like the Apollo 13 engineers, we are constantly asking ourselves, “What can I make out of all this?”
Here we come to yet another connection between deep listening and HSP spirituality. Because we are always looking for deeper meaning, life is an ongoing spiritual unfolding for us. We can’t help it. You can’t keep looking for deeper meaning without bumping into the spiritual.
By “spiritual,” I don’t necessarily mean “religious.” You may be, but you may not. For an HSP, living spiritually means staying in touch with your inner knowing so you can live in integrity with your highest values. The labels you put on the process don’t matter, as long as you engage in it.
The three listening commitments
The listening practice that supports connection to meaning is an eminently practical expression of daily spirituality. To listen this way, the Listener must make three commitments:
- Maintain the attitude that what the Speaker is sharing is sacred—that is, “entitled to reverence and respect.” When you enter this sacred space, check your own reactions, comments, judgments, stories, advice and reassurances at the door so you can focus entirely on the %meaning or essence of what is being said.
- Be patient. Take time to make sure you’ve heard what the Speaker meant to say. Don’t assume you’ve heard the Speaker accurately until you have actively confirmed it. This will require you to reflect or paraphrase what you’ve heard. You may need several tries before the Speaker says, “Yes, that’s it.”
- Firmly plant yourself in an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance and curiosity towards the Speaker. When you are in the Listener role, whether or not you agree with the Speaker is beside the point. If you disagree, remind yourself that acceptance does not equal agreement. Commit yourself to remain open and curious about the meaning their words have for them.
To maintain this stance of reverent respect, nonjudgmental acceptance, and curiosity, you will need to cultivate the quality of sacred stubbornness. The Oxford Languages dictionary defines “stubborn” as “having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.”
You will need exactly that kind of stubbornness to succeed as a listener. You have to stubbornly refuse to change your position of respectful acceptance, even when your mind wants to go tearing off on its own track, or if the Speaker says things you wildly disagree with.
The fruits of listening
When you do succeed in listening this way, you’ll see just how powerfully it affects the Speaker. Likewise, when it’s your turn to be deeply heard, you’ll experience the effect this deceptively simple act has on you.
When you are deeply heard, you feel literally encouraged. Your heart—ton coeur, as a French speaker would say—has been received and held. You may feel peace, relief, clarity, or galvanized energy.
Try this: have a conversation with someone close to you. Take turns being the Listener. Follow the three commitments above. Observe for yourself that when you have support in connecting to your sacred sense of inner rightness, you feel energized and enlivened. Like catnip, the feeling is irresistible.
If you are highly sensitive, making sure you provide yourself with regular opportunities to be deeply heard is an essential form of self-care, helping you stay connected to your spirituality. However, all human beings love to be attentively listened to. Because we are particularly good at it, sensitive people can offer this gift to others as well as seeking it for ourselves.
To take this gift a step further, we can strive to listen in this way all the time—especially with those people who are unable to return the favor. When we listen deeply to another person, we take a concrete step towards seeing the sacred in them….and seeing the sacred in every human being is the only road to peace.
I’m not saying this is easy. For a sensitive person—tending, as we do, to take things deeply to heart—the practice of sacred stubbornness can be very challenging. We will succeed sometimes, and fail spectacularly at other times. We’ll spend a lifetime attempting this sacred feat. But the rewards are great.
Note: This post is an edited version of one that was originally broadcast on March 6, 2017.
Photo by Charles Pragnell from Pexels
Thank you so much for this article. Thank you for making it so clear about the deep value of listening, needed this, thank you!
You are welcome Ingrid! Yes, listening is probably the single biggest gift we can give and receive each other.
Emily, this was a lovely article. I was intrigued by your use of the term sacred stubbornness. If you’re inclined to write it, an entire article about this quality would be welcome. Thanks.
Thank you Katherine! That term just popped out and it intrigued me too… So yes, I will think it through more and see if I can make enough sense out of it to do an article on it 🙂
I haven’t read all your articles about listening, but the area I struggle with is when I deep listen (because this is the HSP way of listening) to people who are not HSP, who have no interest in me, who are selfish, who speak in conflicting ways , who don’t include me in the conversation, who don’t communicate clearly to me, who don’t take my needs into consideration, and who cause me anxiety or panic by what they say. Both myself and my spouse have some relatives who are non HSP and by the time I am finished listening to them…whether it is 2 minutes or 2 hours, my brain is scrambled. I have numerous questions as I try not to panic with what was said and what it all means. How is it that an HSP can get so confused by how non HSP people talk?
This sounds like a boundary challenge. Just because someone else wants to talk doesn’t obligate you to listen, or to stay in the conversation without comment if you are getting overwhelmed. It’s OK to say, “Hey, hold on, I want to make sure I’m getting all this. Are you saying__________?” Then you reflect back what you think the essence of what they are saying is. I’ve never met anyone who minded me stopping them for the purpose of making sure I’ hearing them–people want to be heard. But if you are talking to someone who you really can’t get through to, it’s OK to pretend an important call is coming in or something. Whatever it takes. Also, I understand you’ve had this happen with non-HSP relatives, but I want to clarify this is not an HSP/non-HSP thing, either…HSPs can talk beyond others’ capacity to listen sometimes, and non HSPs can be very attentive. It all depends on the person and the situation.
This post really hit home for me (all of them do, really). I MUST have deep conversation to survive emotionally and spiritually. Sadly, right now I don’t have anyone who can talk/listen at these levels. Well, I have a therapist who is fabulous, but I see him every other week for an hour. Two hours a month of this kind of connection isn’t anywhere near enough for me. My dear friend– one of three people I’ve known in my life– who could meet me in the depths, passed away three years ago. I’m a childless widow and an only child. No family. Alone most of the time. Chit-chat over the occasional lunch/phone call is not sustenance. Dying of emotional starvation (not to mention skin hunger) over here…
Hi Eve, I understand how having a therapist appointment 2 hours a month for deep conversation is not enough to meet your needs. I started therapy 6 weeks ago and I look forward to every appointment for just that…an attentive nonjudgemental ear and someone who can talk with me at this deep level. With the particular program I am with, I am able to phone in once inbetween appointments and talk with a different therapist, but just the same, it provides 2 additional hours a month of meaningful conversation. Being an introvert as well, I am more hesitant to reach out to people, so this makes the experience more difficult. I have been encouraged by Emily to connect with other HSP people. This is easier said than done. There are numerous websites online where HSPs can connect with eachother. Hopefully you will find a site where you can connect. Also, going to places where you might find other HSPs might work. I recently went to a small library and started a conversation with the librarian about what type of book I was looking to purchase for an art therapy project. Within 15 minutes of conversation and an offer from the librarian to participate in volunteer work, I left thinking…this librarian is either HSP or Empath because we connected quite quickly and effortlessly. Art Galleries are another great place.
Thanks for your kind comments.
You are welcome Eve:)
Eve, this sounds very difficult. If you are in introverted HSP, you may only need a few very close connections, but you need those few like you need air, water, and food. Reaching out to HSP communities online, as S suggests below, is one possibility…or going places where other HSPs tend to hang out: classical concerts, the library, art galleries, etc.
I don’t know how to reply to this.
When I read the sentence: ‘trying to process complex issues by yourself is like rummaging in a box full of stuff’. ‘All of the objects are tangled together’, the word ruminate came to mind. Ahh..rummage and ruminate…one is going through tangled physical items the other is going through tangled thoughts, emotions. Very interesting. Even further, rummage sales are where people get rid of the things they no longer need….what about a ruminating sale of sorts? I am trying to finally embark on some ‘meditation’.. to reduce my ruminating…but believe it or not….one synonym of meditate is ruminate…ahhh endless circle. Anyways, the concept of calming my mind is the goal. In between these practices, when I find my mind veering towards rumination….I can relate this to a rummage sale …a physical concept…..with the goal of ‘selling…getting rid’ of my ruminating thoughts that are serving me no purpose. So, in a sense I could say to my mind…nope….going to have a ruminating sale and get rid of these tangled thoughts so no point in thinking over and over about them. And yes, a listening ear, a therapist, can help to sell off these ruminating thoughts. Thank you for providing the visual concept of a rummage sale. ps…I did some research on ruminating…and when understood in the context of animals that ruminate…the process is actually disgusting…(excuse my terminology) , the animals actually regurgitate the grass and continue to chew it. I know for myself the experience of rumination (not to be confused with deep processing) arises when I doubt myself, or feel I haven’t been heard, or receive a negative response from someone…so I am starting to identify the sources that cause the rumination. Hopefully with the picture of a cow regurgitating grass and continuing to chew it ,in my mind, I can rewire my brain to not ruminate at all. I read that ruminating does not produce a solution and deep processing does. So here is another clue as to the productiveness of my thoughts as an HSP. I am thinking more and more that I need to use my strengths as an HSP to win over the vulnerabilities of being an HSP. Thank you again for your articles, I find they help reinforce what I am understanding about being an HSP. I am starting to enjoy more and more this trait.
HI Suzanne, that is good news you are feeling better about being an HSP:)
Regarding repetitive thinking, you might want to go back to this article: https://sustainablysensitive.com/in-my-head-too-much/
I don’t recommend trying to get rid of thoughts. If your mind keeps sending you the same thoughts, it’s because those thoughts have a function for something in you….you need to get to know the part of you that is doing that thinking and have a relationship with it. Only then will it trust you to take over so it can stop worrying or ruminating.
I am still trying to figure out what therapy suits me best. Exactly what are you referring to when you say ‘you need to get to know the part of you that is doing that thinking and have a relationship with it.’
That is what I teach clients to do–Inner Relationship Focusing. How to do it is more than I can describe in a comment:) But it is a key skill to have. Here is some great information: https://focusingresources.com/getting-started/