Lynne Baab’s book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry , focuses on the many ways listening undergirds congregational life. She discusses many obstacles to listening, one of which she explains here. Lynne is a Presbyterian minister and lecturer in pastoral theology. Visit her website at www.lynnebaab.com.
I view listening as a key skill for hospitality in all its forms. Imagine a traditional hospitality setting: you are offering a traveler a place to sleep. “What do you need right now?” you ask. “A shower? A nap? The wifi password? A cup of tea?” You listen to the response and try to meet the traveler’s need. In addition, you may need to listen to subtle cues that help you know what the traveler needs.
Meal times are another typical hospitality setting, and listening plays a key role in mealtime conversations. I have sat through many meals where one person is talking, talking, talking . . . taking up all the air time and dominating the conversation. And I have enjoyed many meals where the host or someone else draws people out and listens carefully. A world of difference!
The connections between listening and hospitality go far beyond lodging and meals, however. I have a very broad definition of hospitality as I described in an earlier post. I see hospitality as an open stance toward others, a receptivity to who they are and what they have to offer. I see hospitality as a welcome to others that can happen in a short conversation or a long-standing relationship. This kind of welcome and receptivity requires good listening skills and the willingness to stop talking long enough to hear deeply from the other.
One of the obstacles to this kind of listening comes from our fears that if we listen deeply and carefully to someone we disagree with, we will be communicating tacit agreement to their perspective. Imagine I have just met someone new in my workplace, and a few random comments she makes leads me to believe she practices a religion very different from mine. If I draw her out about her religious practices, will she think I agree with them? Or perhaps she expresses a political opinion diametrically opposed to mine. If I draw her out about her political convictions, will she think I give assent to them?
The authors of a communication textbook write, “There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.”
These communication scholars might recommend language like this: “Tell me about X”(when X is the thing I profoundly disagree with). “Tell me what motivated you to get involved.” We indicate our openness to understanding what lies behind the other person’s commitment. We open ourselves to the other person’s story. At some point in the conversation we are free to say, “Wow, I don’t agree with the conclusion you came to, but it’s very interesting to see where your convictions came from. Tell me more about how you got there.”
As long as we believe that listening implies agreement, our ability to be truly hospitable to the people we meet will be truncated. We won’t listen well because we will be fearful that we will hear something we disagree with and that we won’t know how to respond. All of us can grow in believing that listening does not imply agreement, that understanding other people’s stories, motivations and thought processes will enrich us even if we disagree with them.
 Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.
Reposted from 2014