Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Listening, or failing to listen

I've been thinking about listening.  Partly this started because at our midweek service I showed a couple clips (one from Brave, one from Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail) about our struggles with listening.  Both are hilarious commentaries on how we fail to listen to one another. And part of why they are funny is because they are familiar, and only slight exaggerations on the ways we actually fail to listen.

But I've also been reflecting on the fact that when we disagree with someone, often we are accused of "not listening", even when this is far from true. There was another Presbytery where I served in which there was a strong divide between left/right, progressive/conservative, evangelical/liberal. And when controversial issues arose, the Presbytery always made sure to present both sides of the issue, to allow conversation and comments from all sides, to open up the floor for differing opinions and thoughts before a vote was taken.  Even so, after a vote was taken, there was always a general outcry from the losing side of, "you don't LISTEN", by which folk really meant, "You disagree.  And if you heard what I was saying, surely you could not possibly continue to disagree."

I have found this in conversation with others as well.  I remember a conversation with someone who was telling me he thought all of those who disagreed with him politically were idiots.  I pointed out that people listen to and respect different news sources. His response was "Well, I listen to it all and therefore make educated decisions!  THEY don't listen!"  He said the other side only listened to things which supported their own beliefs.  I found this far from true.  Again, I had engaged with people on both sides of the issues on many occasions including the same people he was calling "idiots" and they were absolutely aware of what the "other side" was saying.  But they disagreed with him. It is not that they weren't listening. They heard. And they disagreed.

In reflecting on this, I have found myself thinking two things.  First, as with much of what we attack in others, my experience has been that those shouting the loudest that "others don't listen" are in fact the people who listen the least.  They want to be heard, but they don't want to hear in return.  They cannot imagine the possibility that their ideas are incorrect, so they assume if someone else disagrees, they simply must not be listening.  For those who actually are aware that we are all imperfect in our thinking and that it therefore is a gift to each of us to hear a different opinion, an opinion that might help us grow and change and expand our views, they want that gift that comes with listening. Therefore they do listen.  They listen hard.  They still might not change their opinions, but they listen. They strive to hear and to understand.  And they usually assume that others are listening, too and just coming to a different conclusion.  They assume that others are behaving the way that they are behaving and so they aren't shouting about how "they aren't listening".  They accept the truth that people can hear the same things and still come to different conclusions at the end.

Secondly, all of us need to work at helping others know we hear them.  Reflective listening is not easy.  It takes time.  It takes a concerted effort to wait before offering our ideas and thoughts and instead to just take the time to say, "I hear you saying x.  I hear you feel y."  It slows down the conversation.  But it does encourage fuller listening.  If I have to rephrase what you are saying in my own words, it means I have to really hear what you are saying first. Rather than thinking about how I will respond to what you have said, I need to be focused on listening to you.  We are often so busy and in such a hurry to make our own points heard and to get on with it, that we fail to be truly present with each other, to hear, to listen, to empower one another in listening.

There are so many reasons to really listen.  First, I don't think people can grow in their ability to hear us unless they first feel heard.  Or to say this a little differently, really listening to people and letting them know they are heard often has the side affect of encouraging the other to offer us genuine listening as well.  Additionally, once a person feels heard, they are not as anxious to be trying to "make sure they are heard" and they can actually focus more on listening.  Second, listening, genuinely listening, helps build bridges of understanding and compassion even when people continue to disagree with one another.  Those bridges of understanding and compassion go a long way towards helping people grow and work together.  Finally, slowing down and taking the time to really hear one another, and to let one another know that they have been heard, is not a terrible way to spend our time.  What is it we are so in a rush to do with the rest of our time anyway?  Aren't we supposed to be about loving each other?  And what better way is there to actually do that than to listen?

My goal for this week is to work towards listening more fully with all that I am.  But also, I strive to be someone who recognizes that just because you disagree it does not mean that you haven't listened. Peace be with all who read and hear this day.