Part 2 of 3 by Lynne M. Baab —
originally published in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality, Summer 2015
Yesterday’s post presented one way that listening gets shut down because of things we think or feel. Here are four more situations in which it might be hard to listen.
- People say things that I don’t know how to respond to.
Imagine your new co-worker not only wears a scarf, but she tells you about the recent death of her father. Imagine you are uncomfortable talking about death, so her story arouses your sense of insecurity about what to say when people are grieving. The next time you see her, you don’t ask any questions about her father or the funeral or how her family members are coping. Instead, you talk about the project you’re working on together. You’re afraid she’ll talk about her grief and then you won’t know what to say.
All of us, even the best listeners, find ourselves wondering from time to time about what’s the best thing to say. The challenge is to learn to set aside our anxiety about what to say so we can make space in the conversation for whatever the other person wants to talk about. If we can set aside that anxiety, we won’t be afraid to let people talk about what matters to them. We will be open to them and their concerns, as a good neighbor would be. Often no response at all is necessary, and with time we can learn to feel comfortable with silence in conversations. Learning to set aside our anxiety about what we’re going to say next is a key listening skill.
- I’m in a hurry.
Another key listening skill is knowing how to cut off the flow of words gracefully. When we encounter someone in the supermarket and they start a long story, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I can’t talk now. I’m so sorry, but I’ve got an appointment.” We must not ever make listening such an absolute value that our lives become out of control. Sometimes there simply isn’t time to listen well.
However, it’s worth examining our lives a bit. How long has it been since you’ve listened to a story from someone who is upset about something or worried or discouraged or angry? How long has it been since you have felt uncomfortable in a conversation? If it’s been weeks or months, then it’s probably time to spend some effort engaging with someone who’s a bit different than you are or who is experiencing things that make you uneasy. Jesus calls us to “neighbor” the people around us, and if we are always rushing off to the next appointment and never listening, then we are probably missing his call.
Just about all of us in this busy world have a long to-do list. That list can get in the way of listening. We need to ask God’s help to know when to focus on the list and when to set the list aside for ten or thirty or ninety minutes to listen to someone.
- I’m in the habit of talking because it’s less effort than listening.
Let’s be honest. Active, engaged listening is quite tiring. For many people, talking is less demanding than listening. Let’s be honest again. We simply don’t have the time and energy to listen carefully all day long. But in order to build bridges with people who are different than we are, in order to “neighbor” people around us, we have to listen attentively sometimes. And, for those of us who are talkative, that means letting go of our love of talking for a period of time.
- I have no idea how to show love while listening because it wasn’t modeled to me.
When I did my interviews for my book The Power of Listening, several of my interviewees talked about people in their congregations who had never been listened to and simply had no model for good listening. If you’re one of those people, I have three suggestions:
Read the Gospels. Jesus was a champion listener. Watch for the ways he paid close attention to the people he interacted with. He frequently spoke up and he frequently listened. He knew how to do both, and he is a great model.
Secondly, watch the pattern of the conversations in your life. Pay attention to conversations when you’re with people you like to be with. In what ways do they listen to you? Also, pay attention to the pattern of conversation with people who are hard to be with. What are their listening habits? I have learned so much from paying attention to the listening practices of people in my life, both good and bad.
Thirdly, consider finding a spiritual director. Again, watch the pattern of listening on the part of your spiritual director and you will learn a lot.
Tomorrow: one more thing that can block us from listening, then an illustration of what it might look like to listen to someone quite different than we are.