Listening Beneath the Noise
We were made for connection and communication. In order for connection to happen, we must learn to listen. In this blog, Dorothy Greco shares how purposeful listening leads to meaningful interactions and intentional communication.
God set humanity apart from all other created beings by giving us the gift of speech. This allows us to sing hymns and lullabies, teach algebra, engage in meaningful conversations, and say I love you. Language is meant to be a tool that helps us to connect with each other. But for that connection to happen, someone needs to be listening. And in our highly polarized and frenetic world, that seems to be increasingly difficult.
Barriers to Listening Well
There are a myriad of reasons why we struggle to really hear each other. Some are simple (such as being tired or habitually multi-tasking) and others are more complex. Ironically, one of the most universal barriers can be technology itself.
Though we all rely on technology to communicate, its limitations can hinder us from deeply connecting. First, the sheer number of options is both dizzying and fracturing. If you love Voxer and your best friend insists on texting, it’s inevitable that you will occasionally miss each other. And because passing along information via phones and computers saves time, it can cause us to prioritize efficiency over depth. Even under the best of circumstances, electronic communication limits our ability to understand one another because we can’t read the more subtle, visual clues that normally fill in the gaps. The resulting ambiguity can leave us feeling uncertain or insecure. Additionally, in this season of social distancing and limited face-to-face contact, because so much of our communication is happening over the internet, we may have little energy or enthusiasm to FaceTime with friends after a full day in front of the computer. As researchers are learning, we are increasingly lonely and disconnected despite the plethora of options at our fingertips.
Then there’s the fact that the sheer volume of news and information that we consume can lead us to believe that we’re basically experts on any number of topics from the economy to COVID. Of course, we’re not experts but a little information can go a long way in confirming our biases and making us less tolerant of those who disagree with us. It’s certainly easier to defend our point of view than to listen well and be open to another’s point of view. But, defensiveness does little to help us understand—let alone love—our neighbors. Particularly the ones whose front yards sport signs promoting the “opposing” political party.
Another notable impediment to listening well is our natural aversion to pain and powerlessness. Most of us would rather try to fix someone than lament with them. Fixing gives us something concrete to do and alleviates any discomfort or uncertainty. Whenever I talk about my twenty-year struggle with chronic health issues, it’s a given that someone will approach me after the session and offer a religious cliché such as, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle so you must be strong.” Clichés and pat answers feel like lemon juice in a fresh cut. (It’s better to simply say, I’m so sorry, or That must be hard then to throw out empty platitudes.) If we’re hurting or lonely, what we really want is compassion and empathy—not a quick fix.
Tiers of Listening
Unless we have a bona-fide physical impairment, all of us can hear the words coming out of someone’s mouth. That said, real listening is much more than hearing parts of speech flow from a friend’s lips. Adam McHugh writes in The Listening Life, “Hearing is an act of the senses but listening is an act of the will.… Listening is about more than straining to hear voices; it’s about preparing the conditions of our hearts, cultivating an openness inside us. In this way, listening is a posture, one of availability and surrender.” Achieving this kind of posture takes effort and intentionality.
We can listen on three levels: passively, actively, or spiritually. Most of the time, we listen passively. Rather than give our full attention, we continue to type the email, avoid sustained eye contact, or quickly return to our own thoughts. When we listen passively, we aren’t expecting the conversation to evolve into anything more than a simple exchange of information.
When we listen actively, we become invested in the conversation. We make eye contact and move close enough to touch each other. We also work to understand both the content and the emotional impact of what’s being said. Rather than biding our time until it’s our turn to talk, we enjoy the give and take.
Then there’s sacred listening. As the conversation flows, we’re totally tuned in and simultaneously trying to discern what’s happening on the spiritual and emotional planes. Does my friend’s tone reveal any hidden anger or bitterness? Do those tears communicate that we’re touching some historic pain? Active and spiritual listening both demand that we push aside the many distractions that vie for our attention and fully give ourselves to the present moment. When we succeed, we understand and care for each other.
The Role of Stillness, Discernment, and Empathy in Becoming Better Listeners
Many years ago, our church’s small group pastor was leading a workshop on listening. For the first exercise, we paired-off, two by two. One person would talk about a concern for ten minutes without being interrupted. The listener would then share with the speaker what they heard, both in terms of actual and emotional content. The small group pastor and I were together. I’ll call him Michael.
He mentioned that he had been experiencing abdominal pain and had finally gone to see a doctor. Then he dropped the bomb. “It might be cancer.” Momentarily stunned, I forgot the rules of the exercise and blurted out, “No!” As I listened to him share this fresh news, we both started crying. By nature, Michael was a sanguine guy. I had never seen him shed tears or express anger. Because he knew I was singularly focused on him, he felt safe enough to vulnerably share his news.
The exercise we practiced that morning was a game-changer for me. I assumed I was a good listener but it revealed my impatience and my tendency to interrupt. Since then, I have been attempting to listen more attentively by coming to a complete stop and letting go of my agenda.
In addition to becoming still, we also need to grow in discernment. One of the most difficult aspects of becoming a good listener, particularly when you don’t see eye-to-eye with someone, is learning to identify and understand what’s happening on the many different levels: what actually occurred (the facts), your feelings or reactions to what happened, and what the conversation says about you (e.g., what’s at stake). Each level is highly subjective and loaded with potential land mines because though what happened might seem obvious, our biases and wounds impact our perceptions.
In a recent conversation with a fellow church member, we edged into potentially dangerous territory on the topic of systemic racism. Because I’m white, they assumed I would agree with their frustration about the need for ongoing conversations. I noticed myself getting both defensive and angry. I wanted to correct them more than I wanted to hear their perspective. It took a considerable amount of effort to reign in my feelings, ask them thoughtful questions, and then inquire if I could share my perspective. Ideologically, neither of us moved an inch but at least we had an actual dialogue.
In such moments, having empathy changes everything. Had I simply set about to convert my fellow church member, I would not have been able to learn their backstory or demonstrate any real concern for them. By choosing to listen, I walked away with a deeper understanding of their concerns and more affection for them. If you’re not naturally empathetic, try asking open-ended questions such as, Can you tell me more about why you feel this way? Or, What does this bring up for you? versus offering solution-oriented statements (e.g., You should…). When we allow someone else’s words to penetrate our hearts and possibly change our perspective, the world gets a little less hostile.
Listening well bridges gaps between us and gives us the opportunity to actually love one another. In our present culture, that’s something we all need.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a Boston-based photographer and writer. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys. You can find more of her work on her website.