two young people talking and sitting on railroad tracks

The Gift of Listening

by Karen Richter

We’re all about listening when it’s children doing the listening and we wise grownups are doing all the yappin’.

We tell them they have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

“Listen” and “pay attention” are just behind the word no in their frequency in young humans’ lives.

It seems we teach our children all about listening because

  1. We teach the things we need most to learn ourselves.
  2. We are so desperate to be heard that we ask children to play the role of listener in our families and communities.
  3. We don’t think that we need to be listening to children.

I came home from my first two weeks at Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction with the overwhelming insight that, in every setting of my life, I talk too much. With friends, over coffee. At work, in the staff meeting. In the car, with my kids. Over dinner, with my spouse. At church, teaching and leading.  Too. Much. Talking.

So Hesychia was something of a remedial crash course in the art of listening to another human (of course it’s more than that too, but that’s where I needed to start). It’s a gift when we focus our attention on another’s story, not to fix or respond or correct but just to be present. We know this… I’ve read some variation on this theme on this very blog before. But it’s hard work and little valued in our culture.

I’m taking little baby steps. The other week in our Lenten study, one of our small groups asked if I had anything to add to their discussion. “No, I’m just listening,” I replied. They were a tiny bit surprised, but continued their exploration.

Another baby step is watching and expecting surprising examples. I was at Wal-Mart the other day and the customer in front of me was telling her life story to the cashier. I don’t know what prompted her sharing, but she spoke very vulnerably about the end of her marriage, her struggles to find her equilibrium on her own, and her sadness that her life was different from how she always imagined it would be.

I smiled, nodded, listened; the cashier did much the same – adding a small ‘hmmm’ at appropriate times. After the customer finished her transaction and left, I asked the cashier about this experience.

“I guess you’re a little like a bartender… People tell you their stories,” I asked.

“Happens all the time,” she said with a smile.

“Maybe people need someone to listen,” I prompted.

“I guess. Folks need to know that they’re going to be okay, that what’s going on with them is normal… I just try to listen, not jump in with advice or get them more upset. I just listen.”

I started to tell her that she was a spiritual director, or perhaps a retail chaplain, but I didn’t want to add to her stress. But what a gift she gave that morning – a compassionate voice, a nonjudgmental presence. It was certainly a gift to me, just observing and now sharing with you.

On Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, the children at Shadow Rock talked about the command from the voice of God: Listen! We discussed how often adults in their lives are like Peter in that story, bumbling about, making ridiculous plans, and missing the point of what’s happening right in front of him. I asked them how often they wanted adults to stop and listen. Their answers were sad and unsurprising.

So in the spirit of teaching/blogging about what you most need to practice, I suggest a Holy Week discipline:

More listening, less pontificating.
More presence, less judgment.
More gentle nodding, less interrupting.
More compassionate silence, less thinking about your own response.

There are holy stories all around us.