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The Gift and Effort of Listening

Social and political events in my country have put me in touch with some painful places in myself. As I’ve sat with my own discomfort and reactions, I’ve come to realize that what is erupting all around me is the natural consequence of a society in which we haven’t been taught how to listen, truly listen, to one another.

We hear an opinion with which we disagree, and we immediately push it away, whether by leaving the conversation, internally “checking out”, or by launching a verbal rebuttal/attack. These are normal human reactions to discomfort, and there is no shame in them. Opinions we don’t agree with do make us uncomfortable.

We have not been shown how to bear with our own discomfort, how to attend to our own inner reactions and feelings, how to grow our capacity to be present to that which isn’t to our liking. Because we cannot do this in and for ourselves, we don’t know how to do it for the human beings around us.

Where would be we as a society if we knew how to listen to one another?

  • If we could hear the fear of those whose loved ones are more vulnerable to serious illness

  • If we paid attention to the despair of those whose livelihoods have been dramatically and negatively impacted by public health restrictions

  • if we attended to the exhaustion and trauma of those whose economic or employment situations have required they make themselves vulnerable to contracting COVID every day

  • If we acknowledged the fears of those who don’t trust public institutions, including medical “experts” and corporately funded research

  • If we tended to the exhaustion and ongoing fear each of us feels after two years of change, uncertainty and threat

These are just a few examples on a list that could be endless. One person can’t provide safe listening space for it all. But as one person, I can allow for small openings in my own defences.

In my attempts at conscious (and limited) participation on social media, I make a choice to not “mute” some friends whose views I completely disagree with because I want to be able to hold space within myself for viewpoints I don’t share. When I feel reactions against their opinions, I deliberately do not comment because a) my first attention needs to be my own feelings and b) no one convinces anyone else of anything on social media. Instead, I try to get curious about my own reaction and allow myself to wonder what might be behind the “sound-byte” posted. And I consciously remind myself of the loving relationship between myself and the other, a relationship that I want to be strong enough to hold our differing perspectives.

Sometimes my curiosity prompts me to engage the other in a conversation by email or phone to ask questions about their experience, and I am always surprised by what I hear. I always get reminded that our human reactions to life are much more nuanced than social media posts lead us to believe, and that we are all working really hard to try to make sense of a world that feels more chaotic every day.

And this is why I engage in the practice of spiritual direction and personal coaching. Both terms sound much more “directive” than what I seek to offer—a safe space in which those who trust me with their stories know they will be heard without judgement, where they can explore their own inner landscape and connect with their own truth. It is a practice that requires me to stay connected to my own humanness as I listen, so that my hidden agendas don’t impose themselves on the one to whom I am listening. I have to attend my inner space so that the space between the two of us remains clear and uncluttered.

It takes effort to truly listen, especially in the quick, casual interactions of daily life. The more the issue at hand nudges my “fear” or “shame” buttons, the more quickly I will react rather than really attend. Still, I believe it it is worth the effort to keep trying, and to allow myself grace when I stumble.

I also strive to remember (and actively remind myself when I forget) that deep listening doesn’t require that I agree with what I hear. I grow inwardly when I can know my own truth and simultaneously receive another’s truth with respect and care.

Isn’t that what we all long for—to be received with respect and care?

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