HOW DO WE LEARN TO LISTEN WELL
Sep 1, 2016
There is no greater gift than a heart that understands
We live in a time where there is much shouting at each other and beyond each other. In politics, in community, and even in church, we have lots of people clamoring about what is right and what is wrong, and what people should do to make things right. Far too often this language is filled with judgments and accusations. In response to this vitriolic language we hear people pleading for leaders who can listen to one another and work together.
What greater gift can we give to one another than to cultivate hearts that truly understand each other. It is certainly possible for us to create understanding hearts, but it is not something that will happen automatically, or even by sheer determination on our part. Creating understanding hearts comes when we are willing to pray for the grace to be understanding. That means it is part of God’s doing. It is in prayer that we first ask God to give us hearts that are understanding.
While God gives us the grace to have hearts that are understanding, we have to do our part as well. How can we learn to listen well? Many people may think they listen well, or at least would like to believe that they listen well. But consider this parable of Jesus: The manager of the vineyard went out to hire people to work in his vineyard. In the early morning he hired people. In the midmorning he came back to hire more, and did the same later in the day. Finally, he went back when
the day was almost over and found still more people to hire. “Why are you still here,” he asks. “Because no one has hired us,” they respond. He tells them to go to his vineyard as well. At the end of the day he tells the foreman to pay the workers but to begin with those who are last and end with those who came early in the morning. And he pays them all the same wage. This infuriates those who came first-who consider it terribly unfair. And to be honest, most of us who hear the story, identify with these workers—we think it is unfair as well. And what does Jesus say at the end of the story— “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Not a very comforting message! In effect Jesus is inviting those who think the owner of the vineyard is being very unfair to enter into a different world—the world of the overlooked, the underprivileged. They are the workers who were picked over from the beginning of the day and were left there because no one would hire them. Understanding this parable invites us to listen in a whole new way.
So how does one learn to listen well? How does a person enter the world of the misunderstood? Who are the misunderstood? Perhaps it is a spouse, a child, a co-worker. Perhaps it is the person who espouses a different political point of view than mine, or a person who has a different view about the social issues we face in life. Perhaps it is a person of a different ethnic group or a person of a different sexual orientation. How do we listen well to people in all these groups? I recently heard a presentation by Christena Cleveland, an Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University School of Divinity. She offered these thoughts on learning to listen well.
The first thing we need to do is let go of our need for equality. That need for equality expresses itself when we say things like “if you get to have your say, then I get to have my say. If you get to defend your position, then I get to defend my position. If you get to have an attitude about things, then I should get to have an attitude, as well. You don’t get to accuse me without my being able to defend myself. You don’t get to talk more than I do.” Without even being conscience of it, we bring this need for equality into our attempts at listening to others. We want everything to be fair. And we believe that others don’t get to be angry unless we believe it is justified. Simply put, if we want to learn to listen well, we need to let go of this need for equality and fairness.
Learning to listen well also means surrendering the moral high ground. Without being aware of it, most of us also come from a position of power and privilege. And because we see the world in a particular way, which we believe is the right way, we use our set of beliefs as the benchmark for other people’s behaviors. It makes perfect sense to us, of course. The moral stands that we take seem fair and reasonable to us, and so they must be fair and reasonable to others, as well. But the truth is, we don’t get to decide what is fair for others who are different from us or how they should respond in the face of oppression. If we want to learn to listen well, then we have to realize that we don’t get to determine what is right and wrong for others.
Learning to listen well means embracing the anger of those who feel oppressed. That can be difficult for us, because often times when things get uncomfortable we want to walk away. And the fact that we can walk away indicates the position of privilege we come from. We can say “I don’t have to sit here and listen to this conversation.” But the truth is that people who are on the other side of this conversation know something about the world that we don’t. When people are angry, it’s because they have something to be angry about. Our challenge is to lean into the anger of others. When we do so, we can create a space where people feel comfortable sharing their anger. And when I create this space I am going to hear about a truth that is not necessarily part of my reality. It means having the courage to say “tell me more,” rather than saying “Are you sure you are not making too much of this?” or “Well, not all men, or Christians, or white people, or fill in the blank, are like that.” Sometimes we can avoid leaning into the anger by saying “I don’t want to hear this,” or “until you can calm down I don’t have to put up with your anger.” When we adopt a stance of saying “tell me more,” we are creating an opportunity for us to be one with the other person, an opportunity to be part of an experience where the other person is impacting me.
Finally, learning to listen well means being willing to leave our own turf. We reach out to the person we disagree with, the one we judge to be wrong, or just plain different from us. Jesus is the model for us. In the letter to the Philippians, we read that “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took on the form of a human being.” He came to us, he did not demand that we come to him. Think of how this dynamic changes things. When we disagree with someone, instead of staying with my group and surrounding myself with the people who think and act and believe as I do, I put myself in a position where I can be challenged by people who act, think and even believe differently than me.
Listening well is something we all aspire to. And, in this age of divisiveness we want our leaders to be an example of good listening. But if we wonder why our leaders or our politicians don’t always listen to each other, we need only look at how hard it is for us to listen to others in our life. What’s the solution? An old piece of wisdom says “Be the change you want to see.” And that might be the best place for all of us to begin!