I'm still learning to listen

For all of my professional life, I have been honing the skill of listening. When we were in seminary, we practiced active listening by carefully feeding back to one another the essence of what we had heard, checking for accuracy until we could consistently satisfy the one speaking that we have heard what they were saying. As a minister, one of the places where I check my listening skills is in the art of preparing a funeral meditation. When a death occurs, I conduct an interview with surviving family members that mostly is a process of provoking stories about the person who had died. I take a few notes as I listen carefully. After the funeral, I listen carefully to the family and friends. When I have been successful, I will hear them say that I got it just right, that they are amazed at how much I captured the essence of their loved one.

Over the last couple of years, however, I have been very careful to hone those skills in a different way. There is a small, emerging church group that meets in our building. I meet weekly with the group and participate by listening very carefully. Unlike much of the rest of my job, I have very little program responsibility with this group of people. I don’t have a sermon to deliver, and I lead prayers infrequently. Most of the time, my role is to actively listen to the sharing of the other participants and receive their thoughts, feelings and intentions into my own. What I have discovered in this process is that it can make a big difference if I discipline myself to a half hour or so of complete silence before the group meets. As often as my schedule will allow, I simply sit quietly for a period of time. I begin with a breath prayer to center my thoughts and then go through my list of prayer concerns to offer others to God’s care. After ten minutes or so, I am able to clear my mind and center myself to the place where I’m not pouring content into the silence, but simply sitting with it and allowing it to wash over me. Then, when the group gathers, I am ready to listen intently.

Still, I am aware that even with decades of careful practice and a relatively new discipline of listening even more intently, there are times when instead of just listening, my mind wanders to trying to provide information to the person who is speaking. Sometimes, I am even gripped by an urge to argue and change the person’s mind. People rarely want you to convert them into a new way of thinking or believing, but I find myself tempted to make the attempt.

Not long ago I was trying to listen to a person who, like many others, is feeling very vulnerable in the structure of our economy and society. This person has modest means and small savings. It is a person who has worked hard for a lifetime and fears not being able to make it in retirement. A relatively fixed income, with some cost of living adjustments, leaves little for luxuries. In the course of our conversation, the person was expressing a feeling of being victimized, specifically that the reason there was so little extra for small luxuries was caused by other people - primarily politicians who had extracted too much tax and were using too much of that tax money to support those who were unwilling to work.

I was genuinely trying to listen to the speaker, but I found myself disagreeing with the conclusions. It seems important to me that we have some social safety nets for those who are at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak. I know individuals who have collected more in Social Security than they paid into the system. They are the victims of circumstances beyond their control. In one case, the person was injured early in his life and has collected disability payments that are required to survive. He lives more modestly than the person I was speaking with. He is no less of a hard worker. I don’t see him as a burden on society, but rather as the victim of an unfortunate accident.

I know that the speaker, to whose words I was listening, but whose conclusions were confusing to me, has not spent as much time as I have with those who are caught up in the cycle of entrenched poverty. I know that the speaker never experienced an extended period of unemployment and doesn’t really understand that things like an owned home, a paid mortgage and no debt are merely fantasies for some people - things to which they aspire but will never know.

Still, I had to fight back the urge to try to provide a corrective to what seemed to me to be a clear case of someone whose politics clearly are not producing the results that person desires. Clearly in my mind the continuation of the widening of the gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of our population puts the person with whom I was speaking in a similar category as those who are impoverished. Helping those at the bottom would help that person. I wanted to point out that it seems to me that the person has acted against the very things that are in the best interests of people just like that person.

I bit my tongue. I listened carefully. I didn’t provide a corrective to what seemed to me to be mistaken thinking. Tragically, however, I didn’t succeed in truly listening. Instead of receiving the thoughts, feelings and intentions of the other, my mind kept wanting to change those thoughts, feelings and intentions.

Clearly our deeply divided society needs us to listen more carefully than ever if we are to overcome the divides in our communities. Clearly I need even more practice at listening. I pray for the day when we will discover common ground and renew our sense of being in this together.

for the moment, however, I walked away from the conversation simply more aware of the differences in how we think and perceive the world.

I pray that even that was a modest first step.

Copyright (c) 2016 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!