The Challenge of Listening

I am a professional listener. As a psychologist and spiritual director, clients have literally paid me for listening to them. I should know something about listening after all these years, but I am still a learner. I do know that listening to another can be deeply spiritual, an experience that opens both of us to God. And I know the challenge is to listen with an open heart and mind, to be hospitable to the speaker’s story and truth.

Listening comes in many forms. Sometimes we listen simply for information. Sometimes we are semi-attentive to another’s story because we’re waiting for a turn to tell ours. During this strange Covid time, we gather with friends online or in person and masked to share how we are managing and laugh, or perhaps cry together. Our days provide innumerable opportunities for listening, and usually it’s not hard.

Some occasions for listening are challenging, however, and those we’d rather avoid. Maybe we are wrestling with family differences about handling the holidays. (“What do you mean we’re not going to do Thanksgiving this year unless we isolate first?”) Or we wish we could find a way across a political or cultural divide and really talk with a neighbor or family member. We want to ask “How can you believe that?” (or perhaps we want to set them straight), but we don’t want to risk disrupting the casually polite conversations we already have. Sometimes, of course, we’re bombarded with intense words when we lack the energy to listen at all.

When we enter a conversation desiring to listen deeply and understand the other person and their truth, we must prepare ourselves. We need to set aside our own agendas, the natural desire to express our point of view and show our knowledge. This is hard! Being truly present to another is a sacred event; the Spirit is present, too. Do we want to engage in listening as a spiritual practice that opens both of us to God?

These insights have helped me to listen deeply and be present to the Spirit:

1. Listening deeply uses more than ears. Heart, soul, and mind need to be open and welcoming to the other. To offer that kind of listening, I need to remain centered and grounded in God. I must remember God is present while we struggle through painful discussions and disagreements.

When I prayerfully center myself before the discussion, I begin in hope and love. Sometimes I consciously invite Love to be present. In the midst of the conversation, I can remember my hope by silently repeating a word or phrase, such as ‘love’, or ‘peace’, or ‘Spirit is here.’

2. Listening with love is hardest when I fundamentally disagree with the words I hear. Sometimes I can calm and re-center myself by attending to my breath or my heartbeat. If I picture the other person’s lungs rising and falling and the other person’s heart pumping, I remember she is made of the same stuff I am. We share a common humanity.

Not only is the person I am listening to a physical being like me, but she is of God and lives within God’s love. Early Quaker George Fox instructed us to”walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” When Fox wrote about answering, he clearly expected that we listened first. Fox’s tumultuous life included imprisonments, beatings, and fierce opposition to what he held as truth. Even so, he wrote that there is “that of God in everyone.”

It helps me continue listening in love to the other when I picture him living his best self, his most loving self. I can imagine him proud and happy at a child’s graduation, or pausing in awe at a sunset, or perhaps making an impulsive donation to a person in need.

3. I will never fully master this practice of deeply listening in love. All I can do is pray “help!” and be open to God as my listening companion. But learning to listen in love helps me grow spiritually. It enlarges my loving. Besides understanding the other better, I understand myself and my own resistances better. Sometimes, having listened, I speak my truth with more kindness. And I remember that I need more than my own abilities to truly listen.

Questions for Reflection

When I have difficult conversations, am I willing to be open and grounded in Love? Can I remember that Spirit will draw me towards love and tenderness as I listen?

Do I believe that God is in everyone, that we all have a best self? Do I want to remember this when I have hard conversations?

How am I challenged to practice listening in love?

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Listening”

  1. Thank you Nancy. While reading I was mulling over the difference I feel in listening from a spiritual direction perspective versus any other setting perspective. Hmmm…what if the same openness to the Presence were practiced all the time? Hmmm. The Spirit has caught my attention here and now I must decide whether I want to respond in a supple surrender. It is difficult to unhear the voice of God.

  2. Thank you Ann! I really appreciate you considered what would it be like if you engaged in all listening opportunities as the kind of deep listening that happens in spiritual direction. That’s a lifetime learning!

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