How Looking At Kopi Cups Can Make You A Better Listener

How Looking At Kopi Cups Can Make You A Better Listener

TLDR: Active listening has become rare in the social media world. Being genuinely curious and asking the right questions can make you a better listener. How to know if you are becoming a better one? Kopi cups will be your guide!

Met someone that can’t stop talking about themselves? Or, heard about how similar your issues are to that person’s and that “you can get through tough times, just like them.“?

It is not a pleasant experience; someone is deaf to what you are saying. Hearing the reply “my dad also passed away recently too” to your sharing of loss is cold comfort. As cold as a kopi you forgot about after making it. It ain’t pleasant. 

We are sometimes guilty of being the inactive listener and other times, the receiving end of it.

How can looking at Kopi cups tell you if you are becoming a better listener? Before we get there, we have to understand what is active listening and how to get better at it.

Active Listening: What is It? 

Active listening often refers to a way of listening that keeps you engaged in the conversation positively.

It requires listening attentively while someone speaks and reflecting on what is said, without jumping into advice and judgment.

Put simply, it has two main components:

  1. Shutting up to listen and not give advice
  2. Recognising you don’t know everything about the person

Naomi Henderson, the suffragist, summarises:

“The real secret to listening I’ve learned is that it’s not about me…I’m holding my cup out in front of me. I want to fill my cup and not pour anything in their cup”

Active Listening: What It is Not 

It’s easy to get complacent about how well we know our friends. It is hard not to make assumptions about strangers based on stereotypes.

Assumptions quickly become our earplugs. It makes us inactive listeners as we listen through a stained filter.

Kate Murphy, the author of ‘You’re Not Listening’, argues that listening has become a scarce skill in the age of social media. Social media is not designed for how real communication works. We do not show friends a picture of our Laksa before asking them a question. The extreme focus of broadcasting ourselves has made us deaf to what others say and need. 

So…am I an inactive listener?

If you answer “Yes” at least once, you might be having a cupful of inactive listening episodes.

Listening Audit:

Recently, have you found yourself saying…

  1. I feel you, I also….
  2. Oh wait, we aren’t talking about X already? Whoops, sorry I am blur
  3. I think that you should… (replying with solutions instead of empathy)
  4. I hear you BUT…
  5. Don’t you think that (inserts your assumption)

Now that you have done an honest audit, what are the benefits of listening?

Why Listen?

1. It makes you stand out positively

“If you want to really stand out in today’s world, stop talking about yourself and learn to hear what others are saying.” Kate Murphy.

It shows to people that you truly care, something rare today. A 2018 survey found that 46% of Americans said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions.

How does being more outstanding look like?

“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.” Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill’s mother)

Jennie spent an evening with two politicians. Disraeli stood out. Disraeli spent the evening asking questions and listening attentively to her responses.

He wanted to know everything about her and steered the conversation consciously towards her.

Naturally, Jennie felt good talking about herself. (Just like everyone else). Disraeli, who stood out amongst his peers through active listening, became the future PM of the UK while Gladstone handsomely lost the contest.

2. It helps you empathise better in a noisy world

With deep listening, we give our attention and energy to others. To listen is to let go of the self and be fully present for others, even when they are expressing strong feelings. 

If we want to help a friend who is suffering, the best we can do is give them space. Space to share, cry and think.

When someone asked the Buddha for help or questions he did not say “That’s what happened to me before I became enlightened, it’s annoying yea?” He sat and heard what they needed to say and did not respond until they had finished. 

Buddha was always uber busy attending to monks, nuns, kings, and merchants. However, if he could sit patiently and listen to questions, we have little excuse to not strive to achieve a small cupful of his empathy. 

(Fun fact: Buddha was a busy person who slept at 2 am and woke up at 4 am to start teaching for 45 years)

In a world where there are noisy broadcasts of self-promotion, we can swim against the stream. We can empathise and listen.

2 Ways We Can Be Better At Listening. 

1. Be curious about people

PM Disraeli had a strong curiosity about people. Before engaging in your next conversation, come up with a list of questions to train your curiosity muscles.

You can kopi-cat (copycat) Tim Feriss’ questions. A renowned writer, Tim asks his interviewees questions like: “In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?”. 

Notice how it focuses strongly on the individual and not on random news/topics?

If this is too much to try with strangers, try it with close relatives or friends. You may get to know them deeper than before. Keep your focus on asking people about themselves. You don’t have to say a lot.

You just need to be asking the right questions.

Armed with the questions, ensure that your questions are an invitation to a conversation and not a question checklist to be completed.

2. Ask the right questions

Having built curiosity about everyone you meet, how can we ask the right questions? Charles Deber says there are two responses we can offer in every conversation. Here are two examples of Shift vs Support responses.

While ‘shift’ responses make you feel that you are connecting with their situation, it doesn’t help the other person feel better. 

In the case of your friend not feeling well, we’d respond with sympathy and ask a question. You might try asking what they are planning to do now.

The key to getting these right is to ask questions that get people to explain their situation in greater detail.

You might try a follow-up about a specific aspect that you don’t understand or want to know more about.

How Do We Know We Are Improving As Listeners?

The Kopi Test:

The next time you are eating with friends who eat at a normal pace, try this. If your cup is first to empty and you didn’t rush your meal, you are most probably listening. When you are busy drinking, you have more time to listen.

If your kopi cup is full while everyone’s cup is empty, try harder next time to listen more.

Compliments:

The second way is straightforward. When someone tells you are a great listener. That’s better than looking at kopi cups. The feeling of connection after a good conversation and the genuine smiles exchanged is a great testament to your listening skills.

May the next time your eyes catch a kopi cup remind you to listen more and talk less. *sips*


Wise Steps:

  • Look at kopi cups to see if you finished slower than your friends, it may mean you need to improve on your listening
  • Be genuinely curious about people, ask them for more details of their lives
  • Focus on ‘support’ responses and reduce ‘shift’ responses, it is a gamechanger
What We See In The World Is A Mirror Of Ourselves

What We See In The World Is A Mirror Of Ourselves

TLDR: Although we view others and ourselves as acting and speaking independently from one another, all of our speech and action are our own projections. Others are a mirror of our state of consciousness. 

This is a reflection piece as contemplated by the author based on the Buddha’s teachings. As such, it may not contain the truths as taught by the Buddha. The author hopes the reader takes away useful bits that may resonate and discard whatever parts that make no sense without any aversion.

In Buddhist psychology, the Buddha gave an insight into how we ordinarily experience the world. We are sense based beings and we experience our world through the six senses. They are – the senses of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and mind. The mind is a sense base object because it comes into contact with the world of ideas dependent on the other senses. Mind in western psychology is the physical brain. It makes sense because the brain receives signals from the other sense bases to create an idea. However, the mind in Buddhism has been translated as awareness and consciousness. The translators of Theravada Buddhist suttas used the word, ‘citta’ in Pali. The word citta includes the mind and the heart. The Buddha did not point to the brain specifically as the mind. He was pointing for us to look at our consciousness. The function of consciousness is a state of knowing and in the teaching of the five aggregates, it seems that consciousness has been intertwined with the sense bases. 

How We View Our World

In our ordinary perception of the world, we come into contact with people and the environment. When it comes to our interaction with others, we sometimes think that other people make assumptions about us. We also think we are accurate accessors of other people’s needs and thoughts, and therefore they may need our opinions. In this way, we often come away in frustrations communicating with the vast majority of people who do not listen to us, just as we do not listen to them.

Although we think that whatever action or words we perceive is made independently by each individual, if we look close enough, what we see, hear, touch, smell or think in the world is but a mirror of ourselves.

We Cannot Perceive What We Don’t Know

Ayya Khema, a well-known German Buddhist nun who taught in the late 20th century, said we cannot see in another person what we don’t know or do not have within us. For example, when we see another person angry, we can see it is anger and something we dislike. That is because we know anger and we have it in us, and so we react to the person who is angry. 

We understand mundane affection, and so we see it as love and something permanent. She said we would not understand what we do not have. The unconditional love of an arahant is hard to understand and we wouldn’t know even if we stand next to him or her. That is because it is something we do not understand as we do not have unconditional love in us. We may only be able to perceive an arahant as quiet and reserved instead of lovable because we don’t know what unconditional love is. An arahant is someone who attained enlightenment in Buddhism. You can also call an arahant a saint.

Our Daily Interaction With Others

Thinking about what Ayya Khema taught, it occurred to me that this happens all the time. Our interaction with others is always about ourselves because we can only talk about and react to what is within us. 

For example, I was at a dinner with friends at one of their homes. This friend is a vegetarian, she does yoga and enjoys studying Buddhism. In my mind, she seemed to enjoy clean living. But she revealed that she still smokes, though only socially. I gave a look of surprise. She remarked that smoking isn’t a bad thing and does not make one a bad person. I was surprised she said that. That is because I never thought smoking makes anyone a bad person.

Earlier on, I had also encouraged the group of friends to practice what they learnt as opposed to mainly studying. However, instead of seeing it as a form of encouragement, they thought I was disparaging their form of practice. So you see, they said I was disparaging because they could not see or understand my sharing of the experience of spiritual practice. I, on the other hand, could not see or understand the pleasant experience they gained from intellectualising spiritual texts instead of probing it in real life. We simply were projecting onto each other what we know rather than speaking each other’s language.

In another example, my helper had been unwell with allergic rhinitis for sometime. Despite medicine from the general practitioner, she did not recover. She also did not want to consistently take the supplements I offered or accept my offer to bring her to a Chinese doctor. Again, I could not see or know her world and so out of frustration I made a comment that she is always sick. Right after making that comment, I realised I was seeing in her what I dislike – being sick. I was also saying only what I know in my world to her – being sick is not a good thing. I regretted my comment immediately upon realising what I had done as I seemed to be blaming her for being sick when it is normal to be ill.

Listening Is Better Than Speaking

These daily episodes made me realise that most of our interaction seems to be a futile business. We are always talking about what we know and consistently projecting ourselves onto another person. There seems not to be any useful speech except for sharing the dhamma and interaction for the purpose of completing tasks at work.

Listening is indeed better than talking. When we think, we think from our vantage point. When we speak, we push onto others only what we know within us and not what the other person needs.

Another thing that struck me is, we can really only be mindful when we pay attention even when speaking. I have not been totally successful in using speech as an object of mindfulness. When I managed to do it for a while, I saw that whatever that came out of my mouth is about myself. Other than that, I found that ordinary speech is a form of entertainment so that we can let the mind loose and rattle on. Ayya Khema also pointed out that only when we have let go of ill will or greed, then we will not react to others. That is because we do not have these tendencies in us anymore to recognise them in others.

Being with others can help us realise many things about the nature of our consciousness taught by the Buddha and his Sangha. When we can see the state of our consciousness, can we purify it by letting go of what makes us discontented and unhappy?


Wise Steps:

  • Experiment with the inanimate objects around you without labeling to find out how it changes your reaction.
  • Observe what you say and how you act in communication with others. Are the words you say truly what the other person wants to hear or is it just about you?
  • Instead of chiming in with your opinions, try to listen more and see if the interaction with others changes from your usual communication with them.