Listening as Service: The Gift of Receptivity


Dr. Michael Purdy, PhD

Past VC Global Listening Centre
Professor Emeritus, College of Arts and Sciences
Governors State University of Illinois.

There some ancient wisdom to the effect that the path to the spiritual, as well as material, success in life comes through love, meditation, and service—for some, it is the double act:love and serve. There also is the maxim that service is as important as meditation (or prayer), and as valuable for human spiritual development. If we attend to the needs of the others,we forget our own needs and advance spiritually. That said, we must recognize that listening is a potent form of service for relationships, communities, and ultimately humanity itself. We can say giving is more important than receiving, but listening is a kind of giving that is a true gift.

Usually, we think of service–seva(sewa)[1]–as physical work, doing something useful for others. At other times, we think of it as helping with planning, or some form of creative work. However, there is a more fundamental, and equally as important, service: listening. “Just listening” to others, simply listening attentively, acknowledging the other’s value, can be a marvelous service. We say “just listening” to indicate that the service required involves the sole, focused act of attending to another person(s)—as in Zen Buddhism, where we are “just” washing dishes, chopping wood, etc., but really doing much more. Listeningmay seem like such a simple and innocent act. Actually, it is very demanding, and involves patience and awareness of the presence and expressions of another human being. We are not listening to surface features, aspects of another’s identity, but to the heart and soul of that person.

Listening has been emphasized in some major spiritual texts. In the Old Testament, for example, we have the phrase, “Hear, O Israel,” and “He who has an ear, let him hear.” In the Japji  Sahib[2], Guru Nanak, the first guru and founder of Sikh religion, put great stress on the importance of listening. There are others, such as ThichNhatHanh in his book  The Art of Communicating(2013). Drawing from much the same ideas, Kittie Watson’s, a human development, consulting and coaching organization Innolect ( 8/1/17) posted about the “Four Symbols of a Servant Leader” on Facebook. Servant Leaders are humble, they listen first, they focus on other’s growth, and they help others do their best.Service leadership is very important in our organizations, communities and governments.But listening is particularly important as the conduct critical for modern human civilization.Listening is built around and is supported by the other essential human behaviors: trust, care, curiosity, reason, and patience[3].
Supportive human behavior requires that we still our own voices—outer and inner—and that we listen in silence. When we are “just listening,” we don’t talk much except to ask supportive questions (neutral ones, without bias) to help the other say what they want to say. We may also make occasional statements to confirm that we are present and attentive. I used to think this was an ego-less act, but now I know that the ego is an integral part of who we are; we should not seek to silence it, but rather to make friends with it and discipline it to be most effective in serving others—just listening.

Most of us, at one time or another, need someone to just listen. We may have had a difficult day at work, or our relationships with spouse or children or parents may not be working out very well, and we may need to be heard and appreciated. We need someone to hear us out. Maybe we need to share something important that has happened to us, or to “get something off our chest.” We may want a friend to be there for us, someone who is open and receptive, someone who won’t judge or try to tell their own story, but who will “just listen.”

We need to be active and balanced in our interactions, especially listening. As David Brooks said in his New York Times column on how we can change how we act: “Sometimes we speak in the active voice, when we’re lecturing and taking charge. But mature activists speak in the middle voice, which is receiving and volleying, listening and responding, the voice of equal and intimate relationship” ( Sometimes, however, as in our current national and global climate where cultures are pitted against cultures and groups against groups, we need a different tack that is more service-oriented. It is a strategy where listening is the dominant and overwhelming behavior. We know people have beliefs that are blocking their ability to see eye to eye with others. In this climate, we need to listen carefully to help others feel safe and respected, and we need to listen to see where people’s “walls of belief” block their own ability to listen to us and others. Once we know where thesewalls of belief are, we know to avoid them and build relationships and community; perhaps we can even find a way to carefully navigate around the walls to connect.

In an article about the Heartland of America (, it was found that when ruralcommunities get together, they talk and listen about unpredictable weather, but don’t mention climate change. The phrase climate change raises a wall of resistance in discussions, whereas “weather” is very important to them and their livelihood, and is one of the largest positive exports of the nation.

One “truth” about human conflict in general—from mediation to conflict resolution, management to therapy–is that building relationships is key to resolving differences, and listening is vital for building or maintaining relationships. Perhaps, then, the time has come for more listening. Perhaps we realize that the most critical human behavior in the Big Rush of our fast-moving world is listening. In France, where the suicide rate among farmers has risen sharply, the government has set up a listening service. “In 2014, a hotline called Agri’écoute (Listening to Farmers) was introduced to lend troubled farmers an ear”  ( In New York City, the mayor has set up branch offices in each of the five boroughs, and moves into each for a few days to listen to borough residents. Maybe the tide is turning from everyone wanting—nay, demanding–a voice, to the critical awareness that someone must be there to listen if speech is to matter.

In actuality, we often listen passively, letting words pass right through us; as the saying goes, “in one ear and out the other.” Or we grab at the first meaning that pops into our heads, usually something that hold much meaning for us, but not necessarily for another. Genuine listening is active; it involves being alert to what is being said, as well as what is being left unsaid. It involves thinking with rather than about what was said, and who was saying it. When we listen effectively, we want to be sure we have heard accurately; therefore, we give feedback to indicate what we have heard.And we ask our colleague, friend, spouse, child, parent, etc., to let us know that we have received the message that they thought they sent. Wanting to understand, we will watch gestures, facial expressions, and even eye communication (if that is natural in a culture) to catch the intent being communicated.

Committed listening is a demanding challenge. It involves clearly focused attention, such as learned in meditation, or other awareness enhancing disciplines. Indeed, we talk of “paying attention,” and recognize that it costs us something to listen. Listening doesn’t come naturally;it requires real effort and continual practice. It also requires heightened awareness to try to do it in the first place. We need to be alert, and seek to understand the words and nonverbal meanings being expressed. We have to make a constant effort to accurately interpret what we hear, and this requires trust, the labor of love, and the effort of caring. Conversely, awareness and the effort to understand come with curiosity and an unselfish desire to help others.

[1] Selfless service, or Seva in Sanskrit (Punjabi: ਸੇਵਾ), is a service which is performed without any expectation of result or award (Wikipedia).

[2] The Japji Sahib is the prayer of Guru Nanak, found in the TheAdi  Granth, (1970), E. Trumptrans.

[3] See Purdy, M. “The Integral Skeptic: Gebser and Metaphysics,” at, where these behaviors are introduced.


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