Active Listening by Bhurijana dasa


Active Listening

Adapted, with permission, from The Art of Teaching, by HG Bhurijana Prabhu

Who Owns the Problem?

The first step in trying to solve a problem is to identify who owns it, because you need to approach the situation differently if you own the problem or not. The owner is whoever is tangibly and concretely affected by the problem.

If the problem belongs to the other person, it is appropriate to listen, trying to understand exactly what is going on. If you own the problem, the counselor’s role is inappropriate and you must directly influence the situation.

Typical Responses

When someone brings up a problem, usually the tendency is to respond with one or more of the following:

  1. Ordering, commanding, directing.

  2. Threatening.

  3. Preaching, moralizing (“you should”).

  4. Advising, suggesting.

  5. Teaching, lecturing, giving logical arguments.

  6. Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming.

  7. Name-calling, stereotyping, labeling, ridiculing.

  8. Interpreting, psychoanalyzing, diagnosing.

  9. Praising, agreeing, giving positive evaluation.

  10. Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling, supporting.

  11. Probing, questioning, interrogating, cross-examining (third-degree).

12. Escaping, withdrawing, distracting, diverting attention, humoring, being


The above responses are not conducive to the development of the relation with the person. Even though you may be quite correct in your preaching or probing, if the relationship with the other person does not exist, your words will neither enter deeply nor be effective. The above twelve types of responses can be categorized into 4 primary groups:

1. probing

2. advising

3. evaluating

4. interpreting.

1. By probing (questioning, interrogating, cross-examining) one often conveys suspicion, lack of trust, and doubt. Also, despite one’s good intention, probing can make it harder to find out the person’s problem, as each question dictates an answer within the question’s parameters, thus leaving little room for the person to talk about what is really on his or her mind.

2. By advising (giving suggestions, offering solutions, preaching, moralizing, lecturing logically) the person often feels misunderstood, especially when one doesn’t first listen to him carefully. The person who owns the problem develops little confidence in his own ability to deal with problems, and becomes excessively dependent on others.

3. By evaluating (disagreeing, judging, criticizing) the person who owns the problem often feels inadequate, stupid and bad. He becomes defensive, counter-criticizes, and hides his real feelings.

4. By interpreting (analyzing, diagnosing) one lets the person know he has him figured out: he knows the person’s motives. If he’s right, the person may feel ill at ease, self-conscious, or exposed. If he’s wrong, the person often becomes angry or resentful.

Unfortunately, over 90% of responses fall into these four categories.

How can then a devotee deal with another person’s problems and at the same time deepen his relationship? The suggestion is to begin by listening. To deepen all relationships listening is effective. And one need not immediately evaluate what he hears—what to speak of agreeing with it. He can do it when and if the time and relationship is suitable. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu exhibited this as a prelude to His teaching Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya: the Lord listened for seven days before commenting.

One should listen out of concern, but also out of necessity: without listening, one will find it difficult to know the other person’s mind, and without knowing the person’s mind, one will not be able to accurately diagnose the person’s needs and offer appropriate advice or instruction. And even if one knows the other person’s mind, he should still inquire and listen—both to facilitate the exchange of affection and to confirm his intuition. What follows are four preliminary stages to active listening: S.O.L.E. (conducive body language), monitoring nonverbal messages, non-judgmental acknowledgments, and invitations to deeper communication.


One exhibits his interest and attention (or lack of interest and attention) by the posture of the body. The acronym S.O.L.E. can remind us of four basic poses we can adopt to let the other person know that we are listening to what he or she is saying.

S: Face the other person Squarely.

This is he basic posture of involvement. If you face someone squarely, you say by your posture, “I’m interested in speaking with you”. Even if seated in a group, you can turn in some way toward the person to whom you are speaking. Directing one’s body toward a person indicates, “I’m listening to you now”.

O: Adapt an Open posture.

Crossed arms and legs can be a sign of defensiveness. An open posture–especially uncrossed arms—is a sign that one is open to the other’s words. An open posture is perceived as non-defensive.

L: Lean toward the person.

This is another sign of interest and attentiveness. Watch two people who are absorbed in conversation. Very often they are both leaning forward as a natural sign of their involvement. Then find two people who are talking, but who are leaning back and looking around. They are probably bored and not very interested in their conversation.

E: Maintain Eye contact.

As you speak with another person, spend some time looking directly at him. This lets him know that you are giving him your full, undivided attention. Without doing this periodically, the person often doesn’t know if you are listening or not. Maintaining eye contact, however, does not mean staring into his eyes. This is unnatural ad will make others uncomfortable.

Monitoring Nonverbal Messages

Another aspect of listening is ‘hearing’ what the person’s body is saying. Just as a person uses his voice to speak what is on his mind, so he uses his body to provide many nonverbal messages. As Srila Prabhupada said: “The face is the index of the mind”.

Nonjudgmental Acknowledgments

A small step indicating more involvement than passive listening is using various verbal, nonjudgmental acknowledgments. These inform the speaker that you are indeed awake and listening. Here are some typical nonjudgmental responses:

“Really!” “I see.”

You don’t say.” “Oh.”

“No fooling!” “Mmmm”

“You did, huh.” “How about that?”

“Is that so?” “Interesting.”

Invitations to Deeper Communication

To indicate to the speaker that you are not only awake and listening, but that you are also interested, you can add, at appropriate times, statements that request the speaker to deepen his communication. When stated sincerely these statements encourage communication. Here are some examples of invitations to deeper communication.

“I’d like to hear more about it.” “Tell me about it.”

“Would you like to talk about it?” “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“This seems really important to you.” “Tell me the whole story.”

“I’d be interested in your point of view.” “Tell me more.”

“Let’s hear what you have to say.” “Let’s discuss it.”

Active Listening

Active listening is based on the principle that diagnosis must precede prescription and on the fact that understanding comes through listening.

Two required attitudes are: “I assume I don’t fully understand, and I need to listen”

and, “If I listen first to understand, then I will be better understood.” Detachment is also essential: knowing that thing are beyond our control; active listening is “helping them helping themselves”. Active listening starts the process of solving the problem, leaving the owner of the problem as the problem-solver.

The key to active listening is listening carefully to identify the emotion. The first step in active listening is to ‘decode’ the emotion. Most often, instead of actually telling us what is on his mind, the person will ‘encode’ his or her feelings. In Krishna consciousness we ‘encode’ even more as we know that certain emotions are maya.

Another aspect is that, in opening up to someone, people generally test the ground, check how trustworthy and understanding we are, just like someone testing how cold is the water by inserting only a toe. Therefore often what they first present is not the actual problem (also because often they are not themselves aware of the real problem). It is like an iceberg:

One should not stop and trying to help the person solve only the presenting problem. One must listen with full attention. One must hear the content and the intent, and respond within seconds (as in any normal conversation), naming the person emotion. One may not label the emotion correctly every time, but it is the concerned attempt that is important. The person will correct you if your ‘naming the emotion’ is wrong. You will also become more accurate with practice.

Here are some different emotions that can be recognized by active listening:

Positive Negative

happiness anger jealousy

elation inadequacy fear

excitement cynicism rejection

enthusiasm doubt alienation

being loved frustration sadness

trust bewilderment misery

responsibility confusion defiance

relief neglect hurt

hope hopelessness unprotected

confidence disappointment

satisfaction sense of being cheated

pleasure sense of unfairness

The second step is to ‘name’ the cause of the person’s emotion. In other words, what is the tangible cause of his frustration, sadness, confidence, or other emotion?

In stating the emotion and the cause of it, one can start with one of the following helpful phrases:

It sounds like you … What I understand you’re saying is …

You seem …. As I get it, you felt that …

I’m not sure I’m with you, but … I’m picking up that you …

As I hear it, you … So, as you see it …

You place a high value on … What I guess I’m hearing is …

These phrases are especially useful when first learning to actively listen.

Thus, responding based on active listening has three parts:

1. Begin with a reply such as “You seem ….”

2. Name the person’s emotion.

3. Name the cause of the emotion.

For example, we might hear the following words from a teenager. “I don’t think I can be a devotee. I’m just making too many mistakes. Every time I try to do something, I seem to either know it over or smash it up,. I just feel stupid and want to kick myself. And everybody seems to just criticizes me. Sometimes I think no one really thinks I can do anything”.

A response based on active listening is something like this:

“It seems to really discourage you when you think you are making a lot of mistakes. Especially when you think the other devotees think you’re useless.”

This response tells him that you are trying to understand his emotion, i.e. that he feels discouraged. It also communicates to him that you comprehend the reasons for his emotions—making mistakes and other devotees thinking him useless.

Let’s see what this response is not:

1. It’s not an evaluation.

2. It’s not a judgment.

3. It’s not an interpretation.

4. It is not a challenge.

5. It is not advice.

6. It is not just a word-for-word repetition.

7. It is not taking ownership of their problem.

8. It is not a question.

Responding with understanding attempts to communicate the listener’s understanding of what the speaker is going through. When someone reveals a problem, it is not necessary to immediately solve the problem. Understanding alone often provides help. Indeed, in a great many cases the person comes up with his own solution.

Active listening is also useful in responding to the happiness and triumphs that devotees meet in their lives.

Although active listening is a powerful technique, know for certain that his technique (or any technique) can only be useful if it is used in addition to, and not as a substitute for, compassion in Krishna consciousness. It is like an iceberg in which the techniques, the skills are only the tip, whereas the heart’s feeling, the sincerity of wanting to help is the main thing.

One fundamental requirement for active listening is the capacity to suspend the judging-propensity. Resist the temptation to immediately offer words of advice or throw out pat preachy lines. The general rule is to not advice unless you are quite sure the listener wishes to accept your words: “advice only when hired” is a saying used by professional counselors in this connection.

Instructing one who is disturbed is usually not effective because the troubled person’s turbulent mind will not allow him to hear.

It is often better to wait until the person’s emotions subside. This often happens quickly and naturally when he feels understood.

Active listening is a powerful preaching tool: it warms the relation, it lets you know what “they are at”, it lets you enter their life by them opening up to you (while keeping, in a sense, above). People really appreciate when you want to hear what they have to say: many people go on all their life without experiencing it.

Another analogy is “shot-gun” and “laser” preaching: when you know what is going on in someone’s mind your advice becomes more focused, more pointed, you know what to shoot for.

Active listening is also useful in book distribution, it can defuse a tense situation in few seconds.

Practical tips in conversation

These listening skills have to be practiced until they become natural. While actively listening, don’t expect to start every sentence with “It seems …” or to name the emotion and the cause of the emotion in every response you make. That will neither be practical nor will it sound normal. Sometimes saying, “That’s frustrating” will be sufficient.

Note that often when you patiently listen with understanding, the underlying problem surfaces after some time.

Know When to Stop

Sometimes there simply isn’t much to say on a topic. The person will often indicate this. He may start responding coldly to your statements. He may say something like, “I guess it’s time for prasadam”. Part of good listening is quitting at the right time. Not every conversation will unearth amazing new insights or solve all problems. Know for certain, however, that each time you properly listen with understanding you add one more brick in building your relationship with the person. Know also that most often it will be you who will have to end the conversation. It’s a rare opportunity for most people to be really heard and understood.

Poor Substitutes for Proper Active Listening

Active listening looks simple on paper, but it is not. Here are some pitfalls to avoid when attempting to do active listening.


Parroting is mechanically restating what the other person has said. When done excessively, parroting sounds unnatural. This is usually done hen renaming the cause of the emotion. You can avoid this by paraphrasing the person’s words.

Gurukula Student: Prabhu, do we have to do all the exercises on page 110?

Teacher: It sounds like you are in anxiety because you have to do all the exercises on page 110. (wrong)

Teacher: It sounds like you re in anxiety because it’s too much work. (right)

Pretending to understand

It is sometimes difficult to understand another person, even if you have carefully listened to what he said. It is better to admit your inability to understand and to work on getting back on track: “I got distracted and lost you. Could you repeat what you just said?” A useful technique is to ask the person you’re talking to whether your understanding is accurate or not.

“It sounds like … I could be wrong, but that’s what I understand”.

“It seems to me that you’d like a little time to think about what I just said. Am I correct?”

Ignoring what a person says

Some people while ‘listening’, ignore what’s being said, or they change the subject.

Long-winded responses

One of the arts of responding effectively is to make relatively short responses. A ‘lean’ response is usually much more effective than a ‘fat’, long-winded one. It usually takes more words to say noting than to say something. Make your responses short, lean, concrete, and accurate. As Srila Krsnadasa Kaviraja Goswami wrote, “ssential truth spoken concisely is true eloquence”.

Being manipulative

We manipulate by subtly directing the person to our viewpoint without first hearing him out.

Another example of manipulation:

Dasa: I’m really having trouble with my studies.

Anudasa: It seems that you’re disturbed because some insignificant problem is

temporarily stopping you from studying properly.

Dasa: I can’t understand why Srila Prabhupada put so much stress on the

four regulative principles and chanting sixteen rounds.

Anudasa: You sound confused why Srila Prabhupada didn’t water-down the

process as you would have done.

Opening and then shutting the door

We start doing active listening but lose our patience. It is like saying, “Come on, tell me how you feel. I’ll understand,” and then reacting in a way that betrays trust. This often happens if the listener starts evaluating, judging, or preaching.

Dasa: You look unhappy. (listening with understanding)

Anudasa: I was late again with the offering to Krishna-Balarama.

Dasa: You sound depressed because you think you are making offenses to

the Deities. (listening with understanding).

Anudasa: Yeah, it’s really frustrating. I quit. I’m going to find a service that

doesn’t implicate me in so many offenses.

Dasa: Now that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. (evaluating).

Anudasa: I don’t care. I feel like going to another temple.

Dasa: Prabhu, going to another temple is bogus. Would Prabhupada like you to act so whimsically? (moralizing, preaching). Why don’t you chant some extra rounds, get a good night’s sleep, and see how you feel in the morning? (advising, offering solution).

Anudasa: Thanks a lot. (silence).

A Word of Caution

Literature on counseling and listening skills often discuss the need for empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as, “identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, etc., of another”. Clearly empathy is required, especially if the person we are listening to requests our counsel. We should, however, be cautious about what we hear and to what extent we want to “experience the feelings, thoughts, etc. of another”. We should be very careful that “their” problem doesn’t become “ours”. Everything we hear and experience creates samskaras, or impressions, in our consciousness. Some samskaras leave deep impressions, so much so that we continue thinking of them long after the actual experience. Graphic details about a gruesome scene may haunt our mind for days, weeks, or even years. The devotee wishing to remain strong in Krishna consciousness, should therefore exercise caution when listening to others. He should be true to his own needs as a devotee. He can set limits, and simply say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable going any further into this topic”. Hearing blasphemy of devotees and hearing prolonged descriptions of activities performed in material consciousness can be especially harmful.

Srila Prabhupada writes in the purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 2.1.12:

“Quoting from the Markandeya Purana, Sri Gosvamiji [Srila Jiva Gosvami] says that one should not indulge in hearing others who are engaged in belittling a devotee of the Lord.”

In Caitanya-caritamrita, Antya-lila 6.236, Lord Caitanya tells Raghunatha dasa Goswami:

gramya-katha na sunite, gramya-varta na kahibe

“Do not talk like people in general or hear what they say.”

The caring devotee who has developed the ability to do active listening will hear about the maya of others, including their struggles with material nature. In order to avoid unfavorable samskaras while hearing, a listener can internally pray to guru and Krishna to protect him and give him the ability to help the person progress towards Krishna’s lotus feet.


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