Last year I dedicated the year to learning how to listen. I didn’t set out to become informed, my purpose was to understand the process of listening better. My hypothesis (and eventual conclusion) was that listening is a spiritual practice that can change us and change our world.
What I learned is that listening is hard and painful work – as it requires setting aside one’s ego – and it doesn’t come naturally.
Despite my taking a formal coaching program, self-educating (reading everything I could on the topic), studying scripture, going on listening retreats, praying to become a better listener, and attempting in every conversation to make space in my heart for the opinion (and thus, pain) of others, I found it extremely difficult to listen if I didn’t also aspire to humility.
I’m sure you could ask any therapist who has spent the day listening to clients that this is a discipline that requires the building of strength and stamina. It can leave one exhausted if one attempts to jump in the deep end of listening where they haven’t waded before. You can feel depleted, bruised and ready to give up.
I think of the listening many in the white community have committed to on behalf of their black and first nations friends and family. I think of men who have listened to women in the suffrage or #metoo movements. I think of the times that those in power have listened to those who are marginalized. Some will jump in and then come up for air quickly feeling exhausted/battered. Others will immerse in listening and become powerful agents of change. The difference is in how they’re listening.
Discovering that humility is a core ingredient to listening well, I’ve had to pay attention to the moments where my ego wants to talk back. You’ll recognize it’s calling cards, “but” or “what about.” These words are a pretty good indication that you are no longer listening because your ego has been bruised (guarding your conscience against being pricked).
I aspire to the impossible task of never being personally offended. I fail at this miserably almost daily, but I still make this commitment as I never want to feel victorious over my hurt feelings. I believe that personal offence is the greatest barrier to listening well to others.
And, as a follower of Jesus, I am free in Christ. I have no need to defend myself for he will do it. Which leads me to my next point.
The other key ingredient to listening well is listening to a source that refreshes you and gives you strength. Often we mistakenly want to receive that from the one we’re listening to. I noticed when listening to my black friends this past week, I wanted them to say in one form or another, “good job for listening.” This is neither their role nor the source of strength for our listening.
I read this tweet this morning (which may well have inspired this post): “You’ll go crazy if you spend all your time analyzing the depths of evil without gazing at the beauty of God.” (Pastor James T. Robinson III, Pastor of Bridge Church NYC @jtrob3)
Now analyzing and listening are two different things, but the point is that there is much we are listening to that is troubling and listening itself can trouble us. Being troubled is good and necessary for change. But being troubled can distract us from being effective if we spend our time nursing our wounds. We must receive replenishment and build the discipline of listening.
Listening to the Lord gives us rest and peace and is the primary voice of wisdom, strength, love to lead us toward shalom*, which is, I would say, the greatest goal of listening.
There is much to say on this topic (a year of learning about listening made me see I had only begun). May I suggest we include learning to listen as part of the work of our listening. Don’t give up on it too quickly for there is transformation in the places where we persevere in listening.
Let me leave you with this most refreshing passage for listeners from Proverbs 2 (emphasis added):
My child, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
𝙏𝙝𝙚𝙣 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡 𝙪𝙣𝙙𝙚𝙧𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙧𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩𝙚𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙣𝙚𝙨𝙨 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙟𝙪𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙘𝙚
𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙚𝙦𝙪𝙞𝙩𝙮, 𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙮 𝙜𝙤𝙤𝙙 𝙥𝙖𝙩𝙝;
𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙬𝙞𝙨𝙙𝙤𝙢 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡 𝙘𝙤𝙢𝙚 𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙤 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙝𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙩,
𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬𝙡𝙚𝙙𝙜𝙚 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡 𝙗𝙚 𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙖𝙨𝙖𝙣𝙩 𝙩𝙤 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙨𝙤𝙪𝙡.
Listen well. Be Free.
*Shalom, meaning (taught to me and our church by my pastor husband) being in right relationship with God, each other and creation. He’ll be happy to know I listen to him from time to time. ;-)