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Deep Listening to Others

Spirituality is inherently relational. We are connected spiritually not only to the Divine Essence, but to one another. How we treat one another and how we listen to one another is not in a different compartment from listening to God. Jesus was clear: love God and love one another as you love yourself. They all go hand-in-hand.

So, let’s look at deep listening to others. The book of James says, “be quick to listen, but slow to speak.” If this is a mark of good listening, I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about how well this really happens anymore. If our recent political debates are any example of how to have a constructive conversation, we’re in really big trouble.  All we’ve learned from them is that we’ve completely lost the art of listening. 

I've found a number of thing that will effectively kill my desire to share something important to me: judgment, lack of interest, brushing me off, lack of eye contact, interrupting, trying to fix it, not really paying attention.

My friend tells a story about learning to listen from her daughter. When her oldest daughter was in middle school, she would come home from school and start going on and on about whatever was going on in her life. My friend, being a typical mother often rushed right in with her opinions and questions. She was always telling her daughter how to fix things and do things differently. Finally her daughter stopped talking to her. When my friend asked why she said, “Mom, you are on me all the time. You always jump in.”

Sadly this isn’t just a mother-daughter thing.  I’m sure we’ve all had people who tried to tell us what to do about a situation in our lives before we even finished explaining what was wrong. And we’ve all probably made that mistake when talking to our kids, partners or parents.

So, what does it look like to listen deeply to another? I think all of these things are key:


Focused attention
-          Not talking
-          Not fixing
-          Compassionate
-          Asking pertinent questions
-          Non-judgmental
-          Watching body language, eye contact
-          Holding space for them to share, holding space for God to be there

Joan Chittester says that listening is about attending to another rather than "using the time as an excuse to talk about ourselves." If you "attend" an event, it means you are present. Deep listening requires presence. But some people will use it as an excuse to talk about themselves and simply take over the conversation with their own narrative and story line.

I’m not saying wecan’t use example from our lives to help give someone a new perspective, or to show that we have some understanding of what they are going through. But I believe it should be done judiciously, and then we have to direct the conversation back to them.

Mark Nepo tells the story of when he was a junior in college and, at the time, his grandmother (mother’s mother) was 77 and living alone in a hotel in Miami. They used to call her Grandma Juicy because she loved orange juice. Grandma wanted him to visit and kindly invited him to bring his closest friends. They had no money, but Grandma didn’t hesitate to say, “No bother. Come. It’ll all be arranged.”

His parents weren’t happy that he was going, as they felt that they were freeloading off his grandma. The argument grew heated, but he felt that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to know his grandma and he felt committed to offer what little he had – his presence and his love.

So, during spring break, Mark and three friends piled into an old Ford Fairlane and drove to Florida. They had no idea how long a state Florida was and called to say they were just around the corner. It took another 8 hours to get there and they arrived at 3 a.m. The light in the lobby was on and the doorman was waiting and knew them by name. And there was grandma. She’d rented a small apartment for them down the hall from her. As they dropped their bags, there on the table was a plate of cookies and four glasses of milk.

During the week, we had our fun on the beach, but also entered Grandma’s world. We went shopping with her, two of us on each arm, and she greeted her cronies like a matriarch whose sons had returned form a strange and silent war.

Our last day there, near sunset, grandma and Mark walked alone along the ocean and she went on and on about her life, her loves and disappointments. It was a privilege to hear her aging voice on one side and the ocean on the other. It seemed as if they were suspended in time, a moment away from pain and worry. She had the most peaceful look on her face and Mark knew then that he had come all that way to have that walk. Grandma gave him much on that trip, and for the first time he learned that he was able to give even when he thought he had nothing to give, simply by receiving. (Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, p. 24

I encourage all of us to pay attention to how well we listen. What is our body language, tone of voice and eye contact? Do we listen better to some people than to others? Who do you wish to be with others?

Love & Light!