To Listen Better, Empty Your Boat

On a quiet Thursday afternoon in the 4th Century BCE, the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi was sitting around with his very best friends. They were sipping jasmine tea, opening sunflower seeds with their teeth, eating some of those intense salted prunes. They were having a moment! These were guys who all enjoyed a good philosophical tussle, and their conversations were animated, rich, sometimes deeply serious and sometimes absolutely hilarious. Zhuangzi was the storyteller among them (as well as Teacher’s Pet to the more well-known Laozi), and so his perspective on things has stuck with us.

Zhuangzi’s friend, let’s call him Georgezi, was pissed off at someone. Who knows why; probably the same stuff we get annoyed by these days. Someone had knocked over Georgezi’s wheelbarrow, and the pigs had snarfed down the day’s harvest. Someone laughed when he tripped on his robe, right in front of someone else he was trying to impress. Not so different from the annoyance we feel when someone jams the copier right before class or disses us in front of a colleague.

Zhuangzi didn’t seem all that sympathetic with Georgezi’s situation that afternoon. His take on things sounds a little holier-than-thou, but he was really trying to help Georgezi get a grip. He said something like this (you can also find this in any number of places online):

If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world,
no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you…

I first came across that parable over 20 years ago. It stopped me mid-sip, mid-sunflower seed. I tried to take in its message and how it applied to my life. When confronted by a difficult person, I’d try to envision his or her boat as empty and pictured myself gently pushing the vacant skiff out of the way, navigating my own wobbly path down the river. It helped.

Or I might try on the new perspective as I drove along the highway. I’d imagine that cars that were moving erratically were empty, and it made me less upset about aggressive drivers – the empty cars seemed to be doing the best they could. Mind you, this was before self-driving cars, so I was really was way ahead of my time in this thinking.

It took years to realize how badly I’ve misunderstood Zhuangzi’s message. I don’t know how I missed it — the whole point is that it’s my boat I need to empty. Close readers will hear an echo of my last Quiet newsletter piece, in which it took me a similar length of time to understand Marianne Williamson’s message about how being small doesn’t serve the world. These long-term digestive processes with the wisdom of sages is merely evidence of the value of giving people (particularly introverts!) time and space to think.

This fall I’ve been exploring what it means to have an empty boat in the context of working with the Quiet Ambassadors. When you’re listening deeply to someone, an empty boat is the only way to go. As coach, you are actually quite in the background – giving up your boat, in fact, to the Ambassador and letting her steer for awhile. You tie your boat to hers and if you are listening closely enough, your boat is actually empty for a moment.

The same holds true for when you are teaching, and particularly when you are teaching quiet students. It’s very tempting to tie their boat to yours, and then pull them along at your pace, on your journey, down rapids that you feel comfortable navigating. You’re a master boatsman, and we can be oblivious to the students that are hanging onto the sides of the skiff for dear life.

When I listen deeply, when I’m teaching, I try to empty my boat. It is lifelong work, this boat-emptying, especially since we all need to hop back into it to bail it out now and then. But I invite you to try with me: when you are working with students, empty your boat. Give the students a pole and teach them to push off and let their boat go first. Point out the rocks in the way, sure. Warn them of the waterfall you hear in the distance. But whenever possible, let them steer. You might be surprised at how quickly they find their optimal pace.