This post is part 6 of 9 in the series Oprah's 25 years of lessons learned.

On her final show, Oprah shared her greatest lessons and hopes for her viewers. In this series of posts, Paul highlights ten lessons Oprah learned, along with his related and unre­lated thoughts and stories.

“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’

“Understanding that one principle, that everybody wants to be heard, has allowed me to hold the microphone for you all these years with the least amount of judgment. Now I can’t say I wasn’t judging some days. Some days, I had to judge just a little bit. But it’s helped me to stand and to try to do that with an open mind and to do it with an open heart. It has worked for this platform, and I guarantee you it will work for yours. Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them. ‘I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.’” — Oprah Winfrey, May 25, 2011

Read the complete Oprah Show finale transcript →

Holding a sacred space for listening

Profoundly sacred moments in my life now come when I have the opportunity to help create and hold a space for someone to think out loud — to move their thoughts out of their body into the presence of another, knowing the listener is listening without judgment, without chiming in. The space is reserved for the speaker. No one else is going to park there.

These are truly holy occasions when I am the listener or when I am the speaker.

As the speaker, the satisfaction that I’ve been heard — that another has heard me and that I’ve heard myself — is a comforting learning experience. When I’m speaking and hearing my thoughts, my thinking changes, often with surprising results. I hear myself asking, “Did you hear what you just said?”

At first attempts of this exercise, my “did you hear yourself” question had tones of self-judgment. Now that I trust the process, I can laugh at myself. I am curious to see what happens. I’m in the midst of grace-filled joy, knowing I am alive and flourishing.

Often my most productive moments are those spent in silence. Silences that come after the initial spew of words. Long moments when the brain has a chance to think without having to speak. I’m grateful to those who have held the silence with me — an extraordinary gift to someone who is usually filling the voids with chatter.

When I’m the listener, I go into “empathic listening” mode — silencing the chatter in my mind. To lose the past. To be fully present in the present. To have presence.

The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy requires listening with the whole being: “The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”

The process sounded easy at first, and is some of the hardest work I’ve attempted to do. My wanting to “fix” situations or help others feel better gets in the way of being present. When I let go of the need to know what happened or “did it work?” and when I’m satisfied to have just held the space, then I believe I’ve done my job.

Thinking for yourself is the thing on which everything else depends

Leadership development coach Nancy Kline uses a similar process to create a thinking environment for groups. Her mantra: “thinking for yourself is the thing on which everything else depends.”

Every time I stop and think about Nancy’s quote, I’m amazed at the wisdom of these eleven words.

Her thinking environment model is a set of conditions under which people can think for themselves and think well together. It’s an easy process to use after the group members decide to take the leap. For me, the leap to be willing to think for myself crosses chasms.

The ten components of a thinking environment

  1. Attention. Listening with respect, interest and fascination.
  2. Incisive questions. Removing assumptions that limit ideas.
  3. Equality. Treating each other as thinking peers. Giving equal turns and attention. Keeping agreements and boundaries.
  4. Appreciation. Practicing a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism.
  5. Ease. Offering freedom from rush or urgency.
  6. Encouragement. Moving beyond competition.
  7. Feelings. Allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking.
  8. Information. Providing a full and accurate picture of reality.
  9. Place. Creating a physical environment that says back to people, “You matter.”
  10. Diversity. Adding quality because of the differences between us.

(Kline, p. 35)

When I read through this list, I’m reminded of two foundations for listening — Ubuntu and maintaining mutual respect. Maintaining mutual respect is my toughest component, especially if I’m feeling stress, have overly invested in a particular outcome, or am emotionally triggered by something from my past.

“Feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar. Without excusing their behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them.

“A rather clever person once hinted how to do this in the form of a prayer — ‘Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I.’ When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier to find a way to respect others.” (Patterson, et al, p. 72)

Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Try holding a sacred space for listening with someone important to you. Establish a presence of ‘I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.’

Resources

Kline, Nancy (1999). Time to think: Listening to ignite the human mind. London: Cassell Illustrated.

Palmer, Martin and Elizabeth Breuilly (2007). The book of Chuang Tzu. Penguin Classics.

Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rosenberg, Ph.D., Marshall B. (2005). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.

Tutu, Desmond (2000). No future without forgiveness. Image.