Difficult Conversations, with Kern Beare

Looking for the light in each other: A Conversation with Listening Expert, Kay Lindahl.

July 23, 2022 Kern Beare Season 2 Episode 5
Difficult Conversations, with Kern Beare
Looking for the light in each other: A Conversation with Listening Expert, Kay Lindahl.
Show Notes Transcript

If there's one thing we could all be doing to make the world a better place, it would be to become better listeners. That's why I'm so interested in the work of listening guru Kay Lindahl.

Kay is the founder of The Listening Center in Long Beach, CA, and conducts workshops and retreats around the world on the sacred art of listening for religious, spiritual, community and business groups.  A Certified Listening Professional and an ordained interfaith minister, Kay is the author of several books on the power of listening, including The Sacred Art of Listening, Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening, and How Does God Listen? 

What got me most interested in Kay's work is the seriousness with which she approaches the discipline of listening. Where many might see listening as a passive exercise, Kay sees it as a powerful creative force for change; where others might assume listening is a simple act requiring little preparation, Kay sees listening as a sacred act and a life-long discipline.

In this podcast, Kay talks about:

  • The role of ritual in setting the context for listening. 
  • The difference between dialogue and discussion, and why it's important to know whether you're having one or the other.
  • Why listening presence is more important than listening technique.
  • How three three essential and interconnected practices unleash our full listening powers:
    • Listening to source (the practice of silence).
    • Listening to self (the practice of reflection).
    • Listening to others (the practice of presence).


Kern Beare is the founder of the Difficult Conversations Project and the author of Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together. He also facilitates a workshop based on his book, which is free for non-profit organizations and community groups.

Kern Beare: My guest this month is Kay Lindahl, founder of the Listening Center, and facilitator of workshops around the world on the sacred art of listening. She's the author of several books, including The Sacred Art of Listening, Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening, and How Does God Listen? She's also an ordained interfaith minister and a board member of several organizations, including Women of Spirit and Faith. 

When I first learned about Kay’s work, two things about her approach to listening stood out. One is her emphasis on the power of listening. For Kay, listening is not a passive endeavor, but rather a dynamic, courageous and creative force. One able to heal our relationships, our society and our world. It is she says, the doorway to new possibilities, it's tending the soil, the key to the growth process. 

The second thing that stood out is that Kay sees listening not so much as a skill as it is a natural outcome of being fully present to another human being. Of course, that kind of listening, she says, takes practice. In our conversation, we talked about how Kay teaches that practice, with a special focus on a three dimensional process that’s at the heart of her training: listening to source, listening to self, and listening to others. 

I'm Kern Beare, and welcome to difficult conversations, where we explore ideas for how we can learn to talk to each other in ways that heal divides and change hearts and minds.

Musical Interlude.

Kern: Kay Lindahl, thank you so much for joining me, I It's really quite a privilege to have this opportunity to speak with you. So thanks for joining the program.

Kay Lindahl: Oh, you're welcome. Thanks for having me. Looking forward to it myself.

Kern: You know, I want to start this conversation in a way I never have before. I'm taking it from your book, The Sacred Art of Listening, where you talk about the importance of ritual. One of your rituals is lighting a candle, and I was wondering, if you were to bring this ritual into this conversation, what would you say?

Kay: Well, I usually start everything I do with some kind of ritual. And lighting a candle is usually part of that. And what I say is that I use rituals as a way to help us move from one kind of conversation to another. So perhaps we've been in a social conversation, or we've just been coming into a room for a meeting, and everybody's sitting down and saying hi, and doing all that. And that's that kind of conversation. So [a ritual] is just a way to mark that we're moving, transitioning from one kind of conversation to another. 

And the reason I use a candle is because it's such a familiar ritual in many, many circumstances. Often in religion it's used as a part of a ritual, but it's also been a ritual from time immemorial, when we sat around fires, when we were early people on this in this universe, we would sit around a fire. 

And then I also like to say that the light reminds us to look for the light in each other. And so while we're having this conversation, let's remember that there's light in each one of us. And a candle becomes a symbol for that light as well.

Kern: What a beautiful way to to begin a conversation. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all began our conversations like that?

Kay: Yes, I think it would, I think it would really make a difference in terms of knowing what kind of conversation you're in. I talk about this a lot, too, that we have different kinds of conversation, but we don't usually distinguish them. And so our conversations get muddled because I think we're in a social chitchat conversation, you think we're going to have a really meaningful conversation about something. We're in two different conversations and this little ritual helps define that a little bit.

Kern: Yeah, well, since you just brought that up, I know you make a distinction in particular between dialogue and discussion. That's one of the ones that we we can be confused about. Since we're there, could you just describe the difference between a dialogue and discussion?

Kay: Sure. I found this distinction put forth by a man called David Bohm. He was a physicist who lived in the 20th century. And he had this wonderful idea about how we think together when we're in groups. And he came up with this distinction between dialogue and discussion. Dialogue is from the Greek. “Dia” means 'through”, and logos means “the word.” And it's like looking for meaning through the use of words. We're sort of exploring something, looking for what's possible, or what's new, or how can we think about things differently. And discussion comes from the Latin and literally means to shake apart. It’s looking for the details. It's doing an analysis and looking for answers. 

So they're really two different kinds of conversation. And oftentimes, we don't know which conversation we're in. And if I think we're in a dialogue, and we're really going to explore and look for new ways to think about things, and you think we're in discussion, where we're looking for answers and where you have an agenda and we need to come up with solutions, then we really are in two different conversations. 

Kern: Yeah, that's something I experienced in the work environment in particular. I think my my natural inclination is towards dialogue, and so sometimes I think I'm just exploring ideas, but other people are coming back really quickly with why this won't work, or why that won't work, and it really would throw me off. And what I hadn't realized is that there were just different assumptions about the purpose of this conversation. So that's been for me a very helpful distinction.

Kay: Peter Senge has done some work on this too. And one of the things that he says is that when working in organizations, if you can take the time to have a dialogue about any kind of topic first, then go into your discussion — if you explore and get all those ideas out — by the time you get to the discussion, the part of the agenda where you go into action and do something, things happen more quickly, more effectively, that new ideas that might not have been come forth before emerge during that time. And so the time it takes for dialogue actually saves time when you get to the discussion.

Musical Interlude.

Kern: One of the reasons that I've been so excited to talk to you is because you give a very deep and very multi dimensional way of looking at listening, thinking about listening, that I just haven't come across and other things that I've read about listening. And so what I wanted before we kind of get into that specific exploration with you, I was just curious, where did this journey begin for you this journey of really exploring the depths of what it means to listen what launched you?

Kay: I think what really launched me was in the late 80s, early 90s, getting involved in the interfaith movement. My husband and I had moved to a new community, and I was very interested in doing something. I didn't know exactly what. But I was taking a course and one of the assignments was to come up with a project. And so my project that I came up with was, what would it be like to have a strong spiritual base in our community? I had met some people from the different religious groups that were in this new community, and so I invited them to come to this meeting, and 19 people showed up. And we met every month after that for about 13 years. 

What we wanted to do was to find out about each other. This is people from different belief systems —  we had at least eight or 10 different belief systems. So it was designed not to have a debate or to proselytize or to make someone believe what you believe, but just to get to know each other. And so we came up with these guidelines for dialogue. And out of that, I realized the importance of listening, and how listening impacts everything that we do and everything that we say.

Kern: One thing I read that you wrote, this idea that we do a lot of preparation to give a speech, to give a talk, but we don't think of listening as needing that same level of preparation.

Kay: We often say, what can I say that will make a difference? And I'm like, no, how can I listen that will make a difference? 

There's this quote by Douglas Steere that I really love. He said, “to listen another’s soul into a condition of discovery and disclosure may be the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” There’s really something profound there.

Kern: Very profound. And I think, from a cultural point of view, thinking about the United States in particular, probably Western culture in particular also, there is a lack of valuing — well, there's lack of understanding, really is what it is — the power of listening, what it means to listen.

You talk about listening as a creative force, which I thought was really a beautiful way to describe it. It's a phrasing that helps us see listening as a power if we talk about it as a creative force. Because we don't think of it that way. I mean, right now, we are so divided on so many issues, and yet, there's present, I think, in a good share of the population, the belief that we actually shouldn't be talking to each other, we shouldn't be listening to the other side, that that is actually harmful to one's agenda, to listen, as if it's giving it power. And so you know, if you were speaking to someone who held that view, what would you tell them? Why should we be listening to people on the other side?

Kay: One of the things that I've come across fairly recently is the work of Nancy Kline. And she's, I think it was how to think, was the name of her book [It’s actually Time to Think.]. But one of the things I took from that was, what she says is that in the way we listen, in how we listen, we become the midwives for someone else's thinking. So the space that we can offer, as a listener, gives someone else this space in which they can really speak from their deepest selves, and discover things about themselves that they might not have been able to say before. 

So we become a midwife, we hold the space for someone to speak their truth. And that takes practice to do that. That's why the practice is so important, because it's not easy to do that. Because what that means is that we have to let go of our own agenda, our own thoughts — for the moment — so we can be fully present with that other person.

Musical Interlude.

Kern: Reading the sacred art of listening, one of the things that struck me is that you have this framework of “listening to source, listening to self ,listening to others,” which just kind of blew open listening for me — those three dimensions and how they play together, and how each one is a very deep concept. And yet, at those at those depths, they're totally interconnected. And we don't think about that. We think about listening to other people, but we don't necessarily think about those other dimensions and how they interact with our ability to listen to others. 

So could we break that down or just talk about each one a little bit. Tell me more about what it means to listen to source and and what that has meant to you, personally,

Kay: I will. I'd like to preface it a little bit by talking about the frame that I look through when I  talk about these three aspects. And that frame is that listening is an art and a choice and a gift

And if we think about listening as an art, well, one of the ways I suggest people get in touch with I mean by that is to think about a time when someone was really listening to you. They weren't thinking about what they were going to say next, or what they were going to do next, or where they were gonna go. They were really present. How did that makes you feel? 

Most people say that it made me feel heard, validated, loved, cared for nurtured, valued, all those kinds of things. And those are experiences where it's like, we are ‘at one’ with somebody else, there's a oneness to those experiences. And that's when I think listening shifts from something that we do, to something that we be — so we become a listening presence. And that's the art. I think an art of anything is when you are one with it, when you are so present to whatever it is that you are doing that it becomes the art of, rather than just something that you do. 

The other two is that listening is a choice. We really choose whether or not we listen to someone else. And we may not be aware that we're choosing, but we are. And sometimes it's an unconscious choice.  You're sitting there and all of a sudden, you realize you haven't heard a word that a person has said, That's unconscious. 

Sometimes I think we consciously choose not to listen, because we know on some level, that if we really listen, we might have to change the way we think about something. And we're not quite ready or able to do that at that point. 

And then other times we choose not to listen because there's something really so profound going on in our own lives that we have no bandwidth for anything else, and we can't listen. And the key here is to acknowledge that this is a choice and to say to someone, I'm sorry, I cannot listen to you right now. Can we talk in 10 minutes? Can we talk later today?  Whatever that situation may be, but to let people know, because I think people would much rather be listened to fully than partially. And then the third one is that it's a gift. 

So you know, I just wanted to put that framework around what I say about listening to source, and listening to self, and listening to others. So listening to God, listening to source: For me, that's about acknowledging that there's something other than just me in this world. It’s a practice of silence. It's a practice of being still and opening myself up to that which I cannot understand or know, but that is there, I just know that there is something beyond just my little self. 

And the best example I can give for me, is going to the Grand Canyon at night, walking back to my cabin and looking up and seeing the Milky Way in all its glory and wonder and saying, 'oh my goodness, I am just this little speck in the face of all this.’ So that's what I think of when I think of listening to source. 

The practice for getting in touch with this aspect of life is silence — some kind of meditative practice.  It can be anything from a minute of silence to 20 or 30 minutes of silence. Some people like music and chanting. Some people like to walk, like walking the labyrinth, or even ‘slow walking’ like the Buddhist slow walking meditation. But just some way of slowing down.

Kern: Yes, I think that's so important. And it reminds me of another quote from your book, The Sacred Art of Listening, where you wrote, “There is wisdom in the silence, it can alter our perceptions and ability to see what is happening.” Can you say a little more about what you mean by that?

Kay: Well, I think sometimes people are concerned about being still. We're so surrounded by noise in our culture, we're so used to being inundated with sound of one sort or another. And the thought of silence is kind of frightening. Sometimes it's like, well, what am I going to do if I'm not listening to something else? Or if there's no noise around me?

What I've personally discovered, and what so many people over the ages have discovered, it's in that silence, in that stillness, that we can begin to hear who we are, we can begin to understand other aspects of life. When we slow down to be in that quiet, still place, there’s wisdom that comes in that silence…I don't know how else to say it. It's an experience that people have. 

What I encourage people to do is to start with a minute of silence every day — just because most people think, well, I can't do 20 minutes. There's just no way. I’m not gonna. And when I say can you do a minute? Yes, I can do a minute. And the one example, I think it's in my book, too, is about this man who said he didn't have any minutes. I don't have any time I can't do this. And a friend of mine said to him, well, do you sleep? And he said, Yes. And she said, Well, how about you take that last minute before you turn your light out, and have that be your minute of silence? Would you be able to do that? He said yes. So he did.

And then after a couple weeks he called her back and said, “you remember that minute thing that you asked me to do?” And she said, Yes. And he said, “Well, I did it, and I found I slept better. So then I thought, well, maybe I should try it some other times. So one day at work, just before lunch, I decided I would use a minute and I told my people don't call, just leave me alone for a minute." And so he did his little minute of silence. And he said, “the most amazing thing happened, I was so struggling with something all morning. And after that minute of silence, I knew exactly what needed to happen next, I knew exactly what to do.” 

So he started to take these minutes throughout his day, because there is something that happens when we slow down our brains enough to let in some wisdom, that will help us to solve problems, help us solve situations in our lives. 

Musical Interlude.

Kern: So how about listening to self? Can you talk more about that?

Kay: Listening to self is getting to know our own voices, getting to know that that still place deep within each one of us. People have different names for this, but there is something within each one of us that is who we are, and getting in touch with that voice. How do we find that voice? Because once we get in touch with that voice, with who we are in that sense, then it becomes easier to know when it's time to speak, and when it's time to listen. We get to learn the discernment of speaking and listening. 

One of the practices that I suggest people take on in getting to know the self is instead of saying “what do I want to say next? ask themselves the question “what wants to happen next?”. It's just it's a little tiny switch. But it's a big switch. Because what I want to say next usually comes from my head, or from my ego, or whatever you want to call that. But “what wants to happen next?” it's like, “huh, what does want to happen next? I have to really sort of go inside and say, what's there that wants to happen? Not what I want to happen.

That’s a primary practicing for getting to know that voice, getting to know your inner voice, just asking that that question.

Kern: And there are some filters we have to work through to be able to access that inner voice, right? This is another quote from from your book: “I've discovered that sometimes the reason nothing seems to change in my life is that something is unresolved in my past, I find that I'm carrying the past with me into the future. So I've learned to take stock of my past to see what I need to do to bring it to completion.”

That is an example of becoming aware of our own filters, which can keep us from answering that question: What wants to happen?

Kay: Sure, yeah. Because we all have filters we listen through —  things that could get in the way of becoming present and really being there to listen to somebody else because we haven't acknowledged those things in our past that impact how we listen to ourselves and to other people. Oh, yeah, that's a that's an ongoing project.

Kern: It is a lifelong project! And there's a practice you have in your book, and I'm going to make sure it's in the show notes, where you offer a series of questions to ask ourselves to help us uncover those filters:

What just happened? 
 What did I learn from that? 
 How did I grow from that? 
 What's next for me? 
 How did this impact others in my life? 
 How does it relate to patterns in my past? 
 What learning can I share with others? 

And I thought what a beautiful little sequence there to help someone kind of go through that process. I anyway, I found that that to be very, very useful.

Kay: That’s great, because it is a lifelong thing like you said, and we can always ask ourselves those questions. And the key is to stop to reflect on them and not just let it go…but to just reflect on it, and then learn from that, so that moving forward, you become a different person in that way. Because you say, oh, yeah, I recognize that pattern. I'm not gonna do that anymore.

Kern: Right. Right. I think one of the reasons you focus more on the practice is because, through a practice like what you describe — learning, to listening to source to self, and then others —  we're sort of unleashing our natural ability to connect. Technique is great, but if we can get ourselves in a space where we're free enough, we will just do, right? We will be in a way that is appropriate to the moment. Is that an accurate way of kind of why you focus on practice?

Kay: Yeah, it is. “Becoming a listening presence” is how I talk about it now. What I want to be is a listening presence. And what does that mean? That means that I have these practices, that I've absorbed these practice, that I do these practices. And it's kind of like muscle memory, you know, that we practice certain things, and then our muscles remember so that we don't have to think so hard about it? It’s the same with these kinds of practices. We do a little bit of practicing every day, then when we come to these conversations that we really want to be present for, it's much easier. We can be that midwife for somebody else, because we've done these practices.

Kern: Yeah, right. Right. Yeah, For me, these three practices are a way of becoming more conscious, more aware, more fully who we are. I like that way of thinking of it, because being a listening presence for others goes hand-in-hand with getting ourselves in better shape, you know, being more present and being happier, more fulfilled, more responsive human beings.so it’s as much a practice for growing up, as it is for be more effective in the world. I mean, the two go together.

Kay: Yeah, I think of it as part of my journey, you know, it's my life's journey. And these are all part of the journey…these are some of the things that lead me forward, that inspire me to go forward. Because I want to move forward in my life. I don't ever want to stay still. That's just that's inborn in me. And I'm always open to more growth and more development of who I am as a person, as a being on this planet.

Kern: I love that description. Yeah, as a journey… a process for the journey.

Kay: Yeah. And the thing about life's journey — I mean, I'm way up there in this age bracket, I'm 84 years old — and so for me, it's like this, this amazing journey of my life, I could never have predicted it. And yet, looking back, I also see all the patterns, there are certain little patterns here and there that do continue. But I didn't see that. And it's like everything that I've ever done is preparing me to do what I'm doing now, which is preparing me to do what I'm going to do next, whatever that is. And these these practices are definitely ones that inform me on what's next.

Kern: Well, you are a wonderful advertisement for what you're talking about. Because you are so vibrant and alive and I know still tremendously engaged with the world. So you're in your eighth decade, I'm in my sixth decade, and I just gotta tell you, you're inspiring me. Because as you know, as you get older, you start to wonder, okay, how much longer am I going to be able to participate, to be effective, and so that's just a gift meeting you has given me. I just wanted to let you know that.

Kay: Thank you. I just I feel so blessed. Honestly, I do. I just feel blessed that I am able to continue to do the work that I do. And who knows — whatever's ahead is ahead and that's what it is, you know. But I'm I'm here. I’m present. I'm ready

Kern: Kay Lindahl, thank you so much for this conversation. I just so appreciate it. And I learned so much and I know other people are going to learn a lot when they listen to you. So thank you.

Kay: Well, you're welcome. And thank you for inviting me to have this conversation with you. It's just a blessing. It's always a privilege to be able to share what I've been given to share. You know, one of the questions that I have been looking at, particularly since the pandemic, is what is mine to do now? What is mine to do now? And so this is part of what's mine to do. So thank you.