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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Mindful Listening and Mindful Speech: Quotes for Reflection and Discussion

updated January 20, 2021

Photo by on Unsplash

posted by Catharine Hannay 

Here are a variety of perspectives on mindful speech, which basically means speaking (and listening!) with awareness and compassion. 

You may want to use them for personal reflection or for teaching classes in mindfulness or communications.
  • Depending on the age and interests of your students, you could either send them this whole list or choose a few quotes that seem most appropriate for your class. (When I was teaching college prep to international students, 3-4 poems or quotations worked well for a 50-minute class, with a balance of reflective writing and class discussion.)
  • Some people have a visceral reaction against either Buddhist or Biblical sources, so think carefully about which quotes are most appropriate for the context where you work.
  • Scroll to the end of the post for suggested questions to spark reflective writing or discussion.

The Importance of Weighing Our Words

"So many people rushed their words. Mma Ramotswe could not understand that: there was plenty of time in the world for us to say everything we wanted to say. We did not need to hurry to get it out." 
How to Raise an Elephant, Alexander McCall Smith, p. 199
(This book is part of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is set in Botswana.)


"One of the things Chee liked about his Navajo friends was that they knew how to be quiet."

The Tale Teller, Anne Hillerman, p. 55

(This book is part of a series of novels about members of the Navajo police and their friends and families.)


"'Nice place,' said Phryne. 'Beautiful mountains.' She had learned on previous attempts at conversation in the Australian bush to speak slowly and use short sentences. She did not make the mistake of thinking the inhabitants stupid. It was just that they did not talk much and therefore liked to give each word its proper weight. [...] Words were seldom given the respect they deserved."
The Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood, p. 128-129 

(The TV series 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' is very loosely based on this series of books by Kerry Greenwood. Phryne Fisher is outrageous in many ways but empathetic toward others and respectful of different cultures.)

The Importance of Listening

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

attributed to Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher  

 “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it means to sit down and listen.” 
attributed (probably falsely) to Winston Churchill

“I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experience. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a coworker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. 
But when I began to pay a little more attention to how people responded to my attempts to empathize, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me.” 
We Need to Talk, Celeste Headlee

(There's a link to Celeste Headlee's TED Talk on 'How to Have a Good Conversation at the top of the video playlist on Empathy, Compassion, and Service.) 

“I find it ironic that the phrase ‘I hear you’ is so often used these days as a way to communicate that we are paying attention to someone. For one thing, the act of hearing happens involuntarily and doesn’t necessarily involve listening. But more important, the truth is that most of the time we aren’t really listening at all. 
I was at the grocery store recently and told the cashier, ‘My reusable bags are buried in my cart. Give me a minute to get them out.’ She looked at me directly and said, ‘Okay, sure, I hear you,’ while she was bagging my groceries in plastic bags. I had to repeat myself twice more before she really heard me.”   
We Need to Talk, Celeste Headlee 

The Challenges of Truly Listening

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to reply.”

Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey, p. 251

"It takes much more than just hearing to listen intentionally, mindfully, and thoughtfully. Listening from both the head and the heart is a cognitive process of receiving information, grasping messages, feeling emotions, and responding to needs.[...] How well we listen inherently depends on the depth and breadth of our willingness to pay attention." 
“We spend an enormous time listening, most of which we waste, because on the whole most of us listen very poorly... we would be wise to give our children some instruction in the process of listening—not so that listening can be made easy but rather that they will understand how difficult it is to listen well. 
Listening well is an exercise of attention and by necessity hard work. It is because they do not realize this or because they are not willing to do the work that most people do not listen well. [...]

True listening, no matter how brief, requires tremendous effort. First of all, it required total concentration. You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” 
The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck

Arguments and Tense Encounters

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1 
(The Book of Proverbs is part of the shared wisdom tradition of Christians and Jews; this translation is from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Christian Bible.)

"I held my throat tight. There was no better way to convince someone he was right than to argue with him."
Blanca & Roja, Anna-Marie McLemore, p. 289

"I'm sure all of us have taken the pledge [...] never to talk about abortion, or the Pope, or astrology. But we do, don't we? All of us, I'm sure, have a few red-flag topics that can lure us into futile argument and leave us with pounding hearts."
My Venice and Other Essays, Donna Leon p. 132


Listening to Other Points of View


“We often over-listen to people with whom we agree and under-listen to those with whom we disagree.” 
Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the JobCaryn M. Wells

“Deep, practiced listening [...] enables you to turn off the judgment part of your brain and allows you to interact with individuals and groups in a seamless way. 
[...] We can find ourselves in disagreement when we don’t really disagree at all, because we didn’t take the time to listen to everything that was being said before we opened our mouth. 
[...] if you listen, truly listen, you’ll realize how easy it is to connect with people you thought you disagreed with.”

Yes, and: how improvisation reverses "no, but" thinking and improves creativity and collaboration, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. 

“After all, isn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads […]  and say: oh, so that’s how you see it!?  Well, now.  I must remember that.”

Listening as Meditation

“Stop, close your eyes and listen. Notice all the sounds. Outside us some are pleasant (a bird singing), some unpleasant (an engine roaring); inside us some are calming (our breathing), some are disturbing (tinnitus and gurgling)... [become] aware of the existence of all these ambient sounds and the emotions, thoughts and impulses that they trigger in us.”

“Now I will do nothing but listen. [...] I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following, sounds of the city and sounds out of the city—sounds of the day and night. [...] I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera. Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.”

Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

Suggested Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Which of these is your favorite quotation? Why?
  • Are there any quotations that you disagree with? Why do you have a different opinion?  

  • Do any of these quotations remind you of a situation that you've experienced or observed? What happened? (For example, I've had very similar experiences to Celeste Headlee's at the grocery store.)
  • Do you think 'mindful speech' is different in different cultures/different communities?
  • Deborah Wolter is a literacy specialist who is profoundly deaf and works primarily with hearing children, communicating by speaking and lipreading. (Ears, Eyes, and Hands is a fascinating book about her experiences and the experiences of the kids she's helped.) What does it mean to 'listen' if you can't hear?
  • “To listen deeply to another person is a real gift that can be deeply healing. Can you recall times when someone really listened to you? What did it feel like to be listened to in this way? How could you tell the other person was really listening to you? How did that person show their openness and receptivity?” (from Planting SeedsThich Nhat Hanh)

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)