The Power of Listening: the Capacity for Sympathy

So much noise. So little silence. Our inclination to listen is easily shattered.  Listening builds the muscle of sympathy and the ability to understand and resonate with another person. The late summer, also called Indian Summer is the season of abundance in nature with many fruits and vegetables to eat. Sympathy is the related emotion and is about taking in and giving. 

Truth be told, I am not always the best or most sympathetic listener. That’s why I love to explore this question about the power of listening and the capacity for sympathy. Though I like to think of myself as able to listen and gain rapport with others, I can shut out details and miss nuances. Like anything else, to practice listening skills is akin to exercising with regularity or eating well. It takes practice and consciousness. We must have affection for ourselves in the process.

My daughter will be the first to tell you that I don’t listen well. Perhaps I assume I know what she will say or do. Humility is called for, as well as patience with myself. Parenting provides many opportunities for growth. A baby’s dependence elicits a natural response of caring.  Stressed, exhausted adults may not be able to meet the infant’s need. The role of a parent of a teenager requires a different kind of listening and discernment. Throughout life, as child, parent and even as a grown child of parents long gone, the possibility of listening in a new way remains.

In Chinese medicine we recognize that nothing is static. We move through emotions, times of day, seasons. Within the rhythm of the cycles is a kind of harmony. One aspect of harmony is the capacity to give and receive sympathy. This emotion has a place in the order of things. Part of the fabric of human culture is our ability to listen to each other and feel sympathy. We need to be heard and we need to hear others. It is this capacity that, in part, creates a harmonious society. 

Practitioners of Five Element Acupuncture use the word “rapport” to describe the connection that arises when we listen and respond with intention. As practitioners we lean in with curiosity to understand another person. We ask questions about their symptoms and about their life experience. As we listen and engage rapport builds. We invite sharing of concerns and symptoms having built up a sense of trust and appreciation. In earlier times this capacity to listen to patients was at the core of western medicine.

The contemporary world demands attention often and it can be hard to listen. We are confronted with pain and suffering all over the world on a daily basis. So it is good to spend time bringing consciousness to the practice of listening, the capacity for sympathy.  And we can discern ways to be sympathetic without always taking on a burden of responsibility. 

Sympathy and listening relate to the capacity to nourish and be nourished which is the essence of the Earth element. Mother Earth provides nourishment which is most abundant in the late summer season of the year. During this season, right now, August and September, the earth element and related emotion of sympathy are heightened.  To be able to receive and digest nourishment is a capacity of receptivity that we all have to some degree.  People who can’t digest or absorb nourishment have symptoms related to this. Some may gain a lot of weight because they never feel nourished. Others may be unable to digest at all and have uncomfortable symptoms of bloating and indigestion.  

We need to take in and digest food for nourishment. We also need to take in and digest life experiences to be healthy. Sympathy, both the ability to give and receive it, is an important part of this balance. To cultivate and practice listening is to strengthen those muscles.


Postponed: The Power of Listening on for Sunday August 28 to be rescheduled.New date TBA  

Register Now for The Tools and Tasks for Life Over Fifty (Ten sessions) will start on September 14. Please register now, early bird rate is $425 until August 31. Questions welcome. Jennifer Downs 410-258-9343.