I have another hypothesis…I know, I know. But bear with me and see what you think. My hypothesis is this: when people say someone did not listen to them, what they are really saying is that the receiver of their message did not do at least one of two things: 1) fervently agree with them; or, 2) do as they prefer. Being listened to in our culture is now about agreement and action that coincides with my preferences. It’s transactional. I know I’ve been listened to because I got what I was after. Sound even a little like it’s in the realm of your experience?
Here’s the thing with that transactional view of listening: it does not express the real gift of being genuinely listened to. And feeling really listened to is great! Maybe you are not sure you’ve ever experienced it. It’s possible, as there’s an increasing transactional, utilitarian view of human communication that robs it of its power to connect us, to strengthen relationships, to …well read on! Let’s see what happens when real, active listening takes place!
As the messenger, the one speaking, several feelings emerge when I sense I am really being listened to. I feel understood, validated, affirmed, valued, relieved, connected and maybe even honored. In that active listening, I may have been given sacred space in which I can think aloud about a challenge, clarify my thoughts or even feel ready to make a decision. I feel special, unique, seen…as if I matter to the person listening, as if my points of view matter, as if I’ve something worth listening to and that makes me valuable. Researcher Caroline Webb[i] demonstrated to a group of business executives what active listening, what she calls extreme listening, is like. Their response to her? They felt as if she was flirting with them because, other than flirting, they’d not had any other experience where someone took an active interest in what they had to say. Yeah. It’s that rare! And that attractive!
Being really listened to is critical to relationships, be they interpersonal or communal. And this is what Pope Francis is encouraging among the faithful through the Synod 2023 process. He’s intuited, and if I am guessing correctly has the research to back his intuition, that much of the Church is characterized more by transactional communication than by this kind of relational communication that includes active listening. So he’s calling for us to listen to one another, to the Scripture and Tradition, to the signs of our times, and eventually to the voice of the Spirit. Actively listen. To connect. To learn. To see something together. To walk along the road of life together, genuinely interested in what another has to say because they can be a voice of the Spirit. #synodjourney
So, how do we let another know we are genuinely listening to them? How do we affirm their worth, their courage to speak and their gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and/or right judgment other than agreeing with them or doing as they wish? Here’s what communication experts tell us are cues to the speaker that you are really listening to them:
1. You’ve set up the right place. Find or create the right environment for the conversation. Make arrangements to be together there and of course, GO! Many of us have experienced the important conversation happening in the wrong place. VERY tough to listen actively!
2. Your focus is on the speaker. Make eye contact. Lean in. Make nonverbal sounds that indicate you are following what they are saying. Minimize external distractions, especially phones. ESPECIALLY phones.
3. You welcome plenty of silence. It permits thinking, resting, reflecting and framing of the next part of the message. And it gives that precious commodity, time...for another. You resist filling it with anything, including breaking eye contact or checking your phone.
4. You ask questions that indicate you are trying to understand what they are saying, on the surface and beneath it. This can include reflecting back what you heard and asking for affirmation or correction, inviting the speaker to say some more, and asking if the message you have received is correct in both content and feeling.
5. You are selective/careful in sharing your personal experience. Your similar experience can build empathy. But it can also shift the focus from them to you, denying the speaker their place to be heard. This can also easily shift to trying to solve the situation or offer advice or suggest behaviors, none of which are part of giving the gift of listening.
6. You remain relaxed about what your responses will be and if they will be “correct.” When, as a listener, you shift to worrying about what you will say, the speaker knows you have broken the connection with them. Stay present to their story and allow it to unfold completely. Do not think about your next comment. When it is time, use silence to consider what to say before you speak. And trust the Spirit's presence and promise to provide it.
7. You value and validate how brave the other person is to share their story/message. Vulnerability is hard. Sharing feelings, messy situations, truths and uncertainty takes courage. Affirm that. Be grateful for their bravery and the trust that has been placed in you.[ii]
It’s plain to see that it is possible to really listen to another person and, when the sharing is over, to not have either agreed with them or done as they prefer. Both parties can go away from this kind of meeting knowing they have honored the other, maintained the human connection, sought first to understand and respect the point of view of another, and to affirm the courage it takes to share something important and the skill it takes to listen, really listen. And they can still not agree or do what the other person asked.
For me, to be really, deeply listened to is such a gift. The honor, respect, and understanding shared are far more important to remaining connected to each other than agreement, or a shared perspective on what needs to be done now. Why? Because it honors me as worthy of your time and attention, two precious items you are willing to sacrifice for me!
For we who follow Jesus, this kind of listening emulates him. I am convinced that what drove people to follow Jesus was, in part, that he and others who were also following him listened well. Hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows and sufferings were welcome stories shared among these people, both solicited and welcomed by the Master who took them into his heart. Being in that community meant being seen and heard, valued and respected, cared about even if there was no positive solution to their immediate circumstance. With Jesus and his people, the seekers and the curious were welcomed through the gift of active listening.
As I see it, the challenge is this: to become a synodal Church means adopting this behavior and making it part of the culture of our parish communities. That means we know how to do this, we practice what we know, we give the gift of time and undivided attention, and we encourage this kind of genuinely human connection. This cultural characteristic will provide the foundation for the kind of speaking Pope Francis says the Church must embrace: parrhesia, that bold speaking of truth from where we stand, without fear of reprisal or rejection. And without requiring agreement or action approved by the speaker.
Active listening is essential to communion with each other. And just imagine if we employed these very same things in our prayer and study of the Sacred Word…as we listen to Jesus! Imagine THAT kind of communion!
Ready to get started changing your parish culture to be one of active listening? Contact us for assistance with planning, listening training, and coaching/accompaniment at firstname.lastname@example.org
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And pray for us as we make this road by walking...on the #synodjourney~
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash [i] Robert Mundle. “What Does it Feel Like When Someone Really Listens to You?” https://robertmundle.com/what-does-it-feel-like-when-someone-really-listens-to-you/ Accessed 7-15-22. [ii] Kevin Curtis. “Seven Steps to be a Better Listener.” The Scope. October 1, 2019. https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_lw7a40k7 Accessed 7-15-22