Listen Well (Part 1 of 3)



Listen Well (Part 1 of 3)

I have a graphic on my computer desktop that says: “Words” mean “Things”.

Our three carefully chosen phrases, Listen Well, Think Deeply, Live Authentically serve as statements of the shared values each of us seek to demonstrate in our everyday lives. Each statement is both simple and profound.

In this short series we are going to explore what each statement means to us. We will try and keep it real and honest, because there is no right answer, and none of us are claiming to be experts.

What does listening well mean to us?

I can't listen well to any prompt from outside myself unless I am on a determined journey toward knowing myself better. So having people in my life who are committed to putting a metaphorical mirror in front of me whenever I need it is very important to me. I am also very good at problem-solving, but that isn't the same as listening. Just before Covid, I spent some time as an oral history interviewer, and I learned the importance of cultivating an attitude of attentive silence in order that the next question I ask can be the most fruitful one.

What most people need is not so much a good talking to but a good listening to. Listening to understand, having empathy and the ability to hear not only words spoken but the meaning, the conscious and unconscious reasoning, thoughts and feelings, behind them. One of the things that I learned about art is the need to look at things from different perspectives and listening requires the same thing. For me listening is as much about discernment as information. Listening well to different people with different perspectives removes any notion that we have a monopoly on truth and challenges entrenched positions, removes bigotry, a closed mind and judgemental attitudes.

‘Listening Well’ is an active task and takes time and effort. Listening is an important skill in all areas of my life, from supporting family and friends, counselling clients, accompanying in spiritual direction, encounters with neighbours and acquaintances and my relationship with God. To ‘listen well’ is to genuinely be interested in another person, offering hospitality and creating space for the shared story to unfold without fear of judgement, experiencing empathy and warmth. I remain open and curious about what I hear externally through words and nonverbal cues and my internal perception and discernment, also bracketing ‘my stuff’ that can get in the way. A practical aspect is the importance of facing the speaker and giving enough eye contact to communicate that I am interested and attentive. It‘s essential not to interrupt, jump to conclusions or plan what to say next; in these moments, I am not listening. In my experience, holding intentional, confidential, boundaried space allows a more profound availability and vulnerability. I am a witness to the story being told and the storyteller knowing that they are heard, seen and validated. When we feel validated, we feel connected and often experience the freedom to explore things from a different perspective, acknowledge our fears and failings and be open to new opportunities to grow and change.

How do we see Jesus listen well in the Gospels?

When I wrote a book on missional discipleship a few years ago, I decided to focus on the numerous encounters Jesus had with such a fascinating range of very varied characters. He seems not to have been driven by the same criteria traditionally 'religious' people were using, and he was also completely unconcerned how this made him look to others. The words of the Samaritan woman who was so desperate to introduce her fellow villagers to the man 'who told me everything I ever did' blow my mind and bring me to tears every time I read them. Jesus turned her from a fearful outcast to a grateful receiver of grace.

I love how Jesus not only listened to what was being said but he was clearly listening to what was on the heart, what was truly, longing to be expressed. He also revealed that ability to listen and to what the father was doing, John 5:19. He had that awareness of what else was going on around in the context of his listening. He listened well and responded to people and situations, bringing life, hope and healing.

Jesus shows us various master classes in listening well in the Gospels. He demonstrates the ability to listen multi-dimensionally. He is profoundly self-aware and consciously present in his listening, it is a visceral experience. We notice this in the encounter with the woman with the issue of blood, Luke 8: 43-48. Jesus is among the pressing crowds, and the woman touches the hem of his garment and immediately becomes well. Jesus, deeply attuned to this encounter, says, "who touched me?" All those around him deny it, and the disciples question him, suggesting a strange thing to be asking as many people are physically pressing in and touching him. Jesus said: "Somebody touched me, for I perceived power going out from me". The Woman knowing she is seen, comes forward. Jesus validates her publicly, and her faith is witnessed. She is well and can go in peace. Through this account we are shown a deeper glimpse of how Jesus listens. He is attentive to our most resounding cries for help and responds to our mustard seed of faith. He is compassionately attuned and present to us in our utter desperation and point of need.

In what ways do we struggle to listen well?

My reading of psychotherapy tells me that we all think and behave in ways that are dictated by scripts we carry in our heads. Many of these scripts are inherited, but others are chosen. They draw on conclusions we have made for many different reasons and, once they are fixed, they are rarely tested. I am acutely aware how much time I spend in my own head, and how easy it is to get preoccupied with 'doing things right'. It is probably my cardinal weakness, especially in times of stress. When I place that pressure on myself, I find it difficult to pause, to sit back and observe - something I'm normally pretty good at. I'm a Plant/Shaper (Belbin terminology) who is good at finding innovative solutions and asking unorthodox questions but if I'm too worried about being misunderstood or misrepresented, I am unable to pay attention to the question that is quietly begging to be explored.

I remember playing out in the street as a child and not hearing my mother when she called out for me to come in for my dinner. I was distracted, I was listening to other things, (the sound of a football kicked against a wall or off a kerb, to other people) but not to my mum. So for me, it's important that I recognise what I'm listening to and that involves some intentionality and discipline on my behalf to listen to God, to my own heart, to be emotionally intelligent. To be conscious of my own thoughts and feelings and to have an awareness of those other unconscious factors that have shaped and informed my life and my response to people and situations. I do struggle to listen well to judgemental, bigoted people, to see beyond their bullying and often abusive language to hear and see behind the words spoken, the ‚drivers‘ that give some understanding as to their behaviour.

My struggle is the stuff that can get in the way of listening well: the unnoticed emotional noise or inner critic that I need to dial down. Anxiety, self-consciousness, preoccupation, being elsewhere in my mind and not fully present. Being in a hurry and over-committed. Pausing in mindfulness and praying helps me to check in with myself – and become more self-aware of my thought patterns, emotional life and body. I can take action for self-care. Take a break and, as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) suggests, challenge my Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). I agree with Craig that we have scripts that get in the way; these are harder to notice and pause or delete as they have often been playing for a long time! I find processing things through with a trusted other helps.

Is there anything we have learned recently that is helping us to listen well more effectively?

I learn how bad I am at being aware of context and listening for the subtext every time I fail to hear what someone means by what they say or I answer a question that was not being asked. It happens too frequently.

I remembered earlier this year when I studied Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for my O level in which Atticus says, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of you – Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”. I found it helpful reminder together with a long held practice of endeavouring to take a few moments to reflect and pray after conversations with people which I’ve found to be good discipline in helping me to listen well.

A recent reminder from re-reading Margaret Guenther's book, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction is her prayer. "Dear God, help me pay attention! Dear God, help me keep my mouth shut! Dear God, let me put myself out of the way! Dear God, let me be wholly present to this person, your child!" This is a practical prayer and call to action in listening well every time I encounter others.

About the Author

About the Author

This is a combined article with inputs from all members of the collective.

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