Active listening

Our seminary experience literally began with lessons in active listening. Our first classes were intensives in Christian Nurture, Pastoral Care and Social Transformation. Each of those intensive experiences involved direct practice of listening. We learned theory and techniques for active listening. We practiced on each other. We were taught that the practical side of the ministry involved learning to listen and to receive not only the ideas, but the complete thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions of the other into our scope of understanding. I took a number of counseling courses in seminary and I interned for two years as a pastoral counselor. But the experience of my graduate school years that taught me the most about active listening was the time I spend with Martha Snyder in the Chicago Theological Seminary Laboratory Preschool. I know of no seminary that continues to have a lab school, but when we were students several theological seminaries maintained lab schools as places of nurture for children and places for graduate students to learn hands-on the meaning and techniques of effective Christian Education. The textbooks about early Christian Education were literally written by the professors in our school. We worked directly with Phoebe Anderson, author of “3’s in the Christian Community.” I provided research and photographs for “The Young Child as Person” by Martha Snyder. The first paper I had published in a professional journal was the result of research done in the seminary lab school.

Martha Snyder taught us to get down on the same level with a child, to make eye contact, and to listen not just to words but also to the meanings behind the words of young children. She taught us how to speak what we had heard back to the child and read the child’s face and body language to judge the accuracy of what we were saying.

I’ve used the things I learned about listening throughout my career and I firmly believe that listening is one of the greatest skills required of anyone engaging in pastoral ministry. I don’t know how often I’ve been told by families that I really captured the essence of their loved one in a funeral service. What makes that possible is spending one or two sessions with grieving families and really carefully listening to what they are saying about the one they have lost. I tell families that they are the ones who provided the material for the funeral service. And they recognize their words and the feelings they have expressed. But they also recognize that the kind of listening that is required is not a common commodity in our culture.

We aren’t very good at listening to one another. Our culture often does not support effective listening.

On the same day that I started out by writing in my journal about legislators who lack the basic listening skills developed by high school debaters, I attended a public forum in our community. The organizers of the forum are community-minded people who have contributed much to our city. The guest speaker is a highly recognized and well qualified expert in his field. I was eager to hear what he had to say. The event was billed as a community conversation and the person who introduced the speaker opened the gathering by saying that the format would be dialogue. The guest had not been invited to lecture, but rather to participate in a give and take. That same person then proceeded to ask a series of questions that were recorded on index cards. There was no opportunity for members of the audience to do anything but sit and listen. The questions were all pre-written, so nothing that was said by the speaker received any response whatsoever. Question. Answer. Another question. Another answer.

It was a worthwhile hour of my time to sit and listen. I learned a lot. I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the speaker. But what happened wasn’t a dialogue. It wasn’t a conversation. The interviewer wasn’t even as skilled as a public radio personality at the fine art of interviewing. I left the room feeling that there was no advantage to being there in person. Since the recordings of the sessions are available online, I think that it might be easier for me to just visit the web site and listen to the speakers. That realization makes me a little bit sad. The group’s statement of purpose says in part, “We believe open dialogue, and an exchange of ideas, can make communities greater. So, we created a platform for conversation . . . at 7 am every month. Join us.” I guess the organizers believe that sitting in a chair and listening is a form of “dialogue, and an exchange of ideas.” It didn’t feel that way to me. None of the questions asked of the speaker were in any way a response to the things that had been said. I left the meeting full of questions that I wished had been asked of the speaker, and had not way to get them asked.

Our social media and hyper partisan ways of organizing people have resulted in people believing that just having a civil conversation without people resorting to shouting at one another is a victory. And it is. The morning was pleasantly free of heated rhetoric and angry accusations. At the same time it was a long way from genuine dialogue. Most of us who attended have ideas that are worthy of exchange, but there was no forum for us to offer our ideas.

I have no reason to attack those who worked so hard to create the monthly events. I celebrate the thoughtful speakers they bring to our community. I will continue to visit their web site and gain ideas from the speakers they have welcomed. I will listen to the programs on the Internet. But I doubt that I will become a regular attender of the events.

Yesterday was a good day for me to practice my skills as a listener. And I know I wasn’t the only one who was being a good listener. That is no small success. For that we can be grateful.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!