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I HEARD you... But were you listening?

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

We're still on the #synodjourney! Today we begin a new series on the foundations necessary for synodality to take root. The first set of blogs is on listening. Why? Because the ability to listen is not innate. Hearing is biological. Listening is intentional. It's a learned skill. And it's critical to the #synodjourney. So stay with us as together we learn and begin to practice...#synodality by #listening.

There’s not a married couple in the world, I am guessing, who hasn’t had that interchange…I HEARD you the first time! And the second part…Yeah, but were you listening?

So what’s the difference? See how these distinctions resonate with you:

1. Webster says, Hearing is “the process, function or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.” Listening is “to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention; and to give consideration.”[i]

2. Kelly Workman, PsyD says, "Hearing is the passive intake of sound. It is involuntary, requires no effort, and is physiological. Listening is the act of intentionally working to comprehend the sounds (words and background noises) you hear. Listening is active, voluntary, requires effort and has the intentional interpretation of sound as its result."[ii]

3. Kristen Fuller, MD says hearing is a passive physical act that requires one sense and has to do with the perception of sound. It does not rely on concentration. Hearing is like collecting data; we hear sounds and words all day long, even if we are not paying attention to them. Listening involves actively paying attention to the words and sounds you hear to absorb their meaning and develop an emotional response.[iii]

I am particularly drawn to this idea of absorbing meaning and developing an emotional response. Absorbing and developing are ongoing processes. That means I have to be prepared to engage and then to act by making space in my mind and heart so that I can discover meaning. But this doesn't happen automatically. Sometimes I'm listening...but not with the intention of actually absorbing meaning and developing an emotional response.

So, what’s going on?

It turns out there are two types of listening: active and passive. Active listening requires curiosity, motivation, purpose and effort, according to Dr. Fuller. When actively listening, the intent is to internalize and understand what is being heard to connect to the other person and participate in a meaningful conversation (emphasis mine). Why did I emphasize that last phrase? Because it’s essential to the synodal process. #synodjourney It’s THIS kind of listening that will bind us to one another, even when we disagree about the content of the message. It’s this kind of listening that keeps the connections between

us, allowing us to journey together, to forgive, to stay in conversation and to stay attuned to the movement of the Spirit who calls us to unity in Christ. By the way, I do not mean uniformity. I do mean a very diverse population committed whose unity flows from the connection to Christ and to each other.

At the other end of the listening spectrum, and yes, it’s a spectrum, there’s passive listening. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve experienced this at work or at home: listening that is characterized by being disconnected, inattentive, and unreceptive. A passive listener, according to Dr. Fuller, is one who has no desire to contribute effectively to the conversation. They already have an opinion formed and are unwilling to work with others to come to some sort of shared perspective, mutual understanding or resolution.

Oh, and lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I’m not. I’ve gone into countless meetings intending to be a passive listener, for lots of reasons. But the main ones have centered on not caring about the subject of the meeting, disliking the people involved, or being sure I already know what is going to be said and what I think about it. You know, the “same story, different day” syndrome. I’ve done it with my husband, my extended family, work colleagues and even at conferences and workshops. The lesson I need to learn over and over again is that passive listening disconnects me. It isolates me in my own echo chamber. It allows me to choose my own egoic viewpoints over and above anything else that might be said. Lord, have mercy and cure me from this kind of deafness. For, I hope you see, it is a kind of deafness.

What does all this have to do with synodality? I’ve already noted one element: active listening is the agent of connection, and synodality is about journeying TOGETHER, connected to one another and to Christ. A synodal culture is one that values connection and chooses active listening as one of its primary means of achieving this connection. So it’s a critical skill, mindset and practice.

A synodal culture (also known as synodality) calls each individual to this kind of active listening to the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures and Tradition, to those who bring knowledge from various areas of expertise, to one another and to our own internal voices. Therefore, a synodal culture commits to teaching and learning active listening, to practicing it, to repenting when it has not taken place, and to holding one another accountable for this way of encountering the Lord and each another.

Finally, a synodal culture relies on a communal active listening in order to discern in common what the Spirit is saying. More on that in later blogs. All this to say this takes work. Preparation, engagement, creativity, searching, curiosity, humility, and a deep belief that we are more deeply connected to one another when we know we have been truly listened to, even if we do not agree on the content of the message…like I said, work.

For an added bonus, check out Julian Treasure’s TED talk “5 ways to listen better”

Looking for more? Make sure to be part of our contact list: You can find our blogs there and be notified when a new blog posts. Feel free to arrange a chat with one of us through the website! And invite a friend to join us on the #synodjourney. We are more influential together!

Take a look at our Listening Resource page to help build listening capacity!

Photo courtesy of Unsplash [i] “What’s the Difference Between Hearing and Listening?” Healthline. Accessed 7-8-22 [ii] Sanjana Gupta. “Hearing vs. Listening: Learn the Difference and How Each Impact Mental Health.” Updated September 12, 2021. Accessed 7-8-22 [iii] Kristen Fuller, MD. “The Difference Between Hearing and Listening.” Psychology Today. July 8, 2021. Accessed 7-8-22

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