The Art of Listening as Taught By Plants


We all know how…or do we?

It seems that half of the relational advice given revolves around learning how to listen to others. People pay people to coach them in how to listen to others for business or marriage. There are countless articles and books on how to listen and how to communicate, yet it seems that despite the plethora of resources, we still struggle with how to go about this deceptively complex art.

I would have never guessed that plants would be the best teachers for listening—or that they’ve been whispering their lessons to me since I was a child. But as the spring has woken my green friends again, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned over the years from being with them.

I realized I learned how to listen.

Listening Meditatively:

Grandmother willow

Pocahontas talking with Grandmother Willow. Pocahontas 1995

Listening meditatively is the kind of listening in which the purpose of communication is to act as a springboard for self-guidance and discovery. Plants are really good for developing this kind of listening because they never talk louder than my own internal compass and they will selflessly sit with me for as long as it takes for me to figure out what I need to learn.

As a child, I understood that if I needed to get a fresh perspective on my life or situation, sitting and talking to plants was one of the best ways. I was intimately connected with myself when I was spending time with plants. When I got older and lost connection with plants, I lost connection with myself.

There’s a silver maple outside my bedroom window at my current apartment, and I often feel it calling for me to come sit under its branches when I need guidance. I know that when it calls for me to come visit, it’s calling me to come find myself again, to come back to my center…my root…and to let all the other distractions fall away from my heart.

Listening responsively: 

Money Tree

My braided money tree when I first brought it home. It’s grown quite a bit now as I’ve learned what it likes!

Responsive listening is kind of like listening meditatively in reverse. Rather than listening to understand my own needs, it’s the listening I do to understand the needs of others. I actually thought I had this kind of listening down pretty well, but when I started to spend more time around plants, I realized I had a lot more I could learn.

Listening to a plant’s needs is kind of like learning a foreign language. I don’t necessarily need to learn a new vocabulary, but I do need to learn how to process the communication that is being sent my way.

Some plants are easy to listen to. When their needs aren’t met, the wilt dramatically as if to say, “Oh my god, water me! I’m dying!” They also tend to recover dramatically too, filling back out within a few hours of a good drink.

Others are much harder. The signs of overwatering can look similar to the signs of underwatering. Too much sun can look like too little. It takes spending time with the plant and observing it closely to learn how to interpret its subtle needs.

Although people can seem much easier to understand, I’ve learned that even when you speak the same language, communication is complex.

It would be nice to live in a world where everyone stated their needs or feelings clearly. However, we all develop different habits of expression, not all of them healthy and certainly not clear. Learning to listen responsively requires more than having an ability to hear someone’s words. It means being able to learn a person’s unique version of expression, to pay attention to body language, and to know how to interpret what is said and unsaid.

Listening Empathically:

Ferngully hurt tree

Okay, so maybe cartoons have played a big role in how I view plants. Ferngully 1992

With the first kind of listening, I was really listening in order to hear myself. With the second, I was listening for the sake of interacting–listening to figure out what I could do. But listening empathically requires a deep connection to another life and a disconnection from that life.

Listening empathically feels dangerous.

I am stepping into the perspective and emotions of another being, whether human, animal, or plant. There’s a possibility that I will feel the joy of that other being, but there’s a much larger possibility that I will feel the pain of that other being. It’s uncomfortable.

I’m often tempted to try to “fix” things or alleviate the pain, but listening empathically means that I listen without interference.

Listening empathically isn’t a form of listening I developed by listening to plants…as with the previous two. Rather, it’s a form of listening I’ve learned because plants listen to me empathically. In fact, when I’m listening meditatively, that usually means they are listening empathically.

They never directly intervene. They never overtly tell me what to do. They sit with me. They empathize. They suggest. But they let me lead.

And as they demonstrate the hardest form of listening, I learn to listen empathically in return—to nature and to people.

Composite Listening:

I’m still learning from them how to blend the various forms of listening. Communication rarely fits into separate categories neatly, so listening to learn, listening to respond, and listening to support don’t have clear boundaries.

I think ultimately my goal is to be able to blend the three so well that there isn’t much of a distinction, to be able to listen meditatively and empathically at the same time…or at least to dance in and out of the three easily enough that they feel they are happening at the same time.

But for now, I’m still learning how to distinguish which one is appropriate for different situations.

Which reminds me, I have an appointment with my teachers now.