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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather


Listening is a rare skill that requires practice

“I don’t think I listened to you very well the other day. I’m sorry; let’s try again. What’s up?” I am out walking with a friend on a beautiful winter day. Our conversation begins with my apology.

A few days prior my husband and I had been out for dinner with this friend and her husband. Over the salad course she began telling me about something that was bothering her. I was quick to offer a word of advice and the conversation moved on. It was only later, in reflecting on the evening, that I realized that while I had heard my friend, I had not listened to her.

Hearing, like seeing, is more than a biological process. Just as we can look and not see, we can hear and not listen. How often in Scripture does Jesus say, “They have ears but do not hear!” The common mode of human discourse, experts point out, is distracted or superficial listening.

Studies show that in most conversations participants are busy planning what they are going to say while the other is still speaking. People talk past each other, abhor silence and rush to fill in any gaps. Listening to another’s problems, they are quick to offer advice and move on.

A favourite cartoon of mine shows a husband and wife sitting in chairs across from one another in a living room. The husband has a newspaper held up in front of him and the caption is the wife speaking to him: “You can quit saying yes, I stopped talking an hour ago.” Inevitably we leave these types of conversations unsatisfied and empty.

Active listening, or deep listening, is different. It’s not about simply hearing the sounds; it’s about apprehending and understanding. It involves setting aside one’s own agenda in order to really hear the other. Such listening requires time, patience and attention. One has to listen for both content and feeling, and one allows silence to have its time. Deep listening knows that time is required in order for the deepest emotions and thoughts to emerge. You are listening not to respond, but in order to appreciate; interruptions, refuting, contradicting and arguing have no place in the conversation.

Listening at this level is an act of love. “Listen with the ear of your heart,” St. Benedict instructs us, because the heart has a different faculty for knowing. It is more direct, intuitive, and contemplative. With the heart, one listens compassionately, refrains from judging, and offers insights but not advice. The other is freed to speak their truth, knowing they will be heard with empathy. It is through such listening that we come to know the other and relationships are established and deepened.

Furthermore, when someone listens to us at that level, we know we have received a gift. Our hearts are lighter, our thoughts clarified, and our paths often clearer. We can work though emotions and come to understand what is happening to us. Counsellors have commented that such listening is much of what they do in their work. We are blessed when we have such friends and relationships in our lives.

So here we were, my friend and I. We do have such a relationship and mostly we are very good at listening to one another. Our walk afforded me the opportunity to remedy my lapse. Acknowledging my poor listening on the previous occasion, I invited her to tell me again what was bothering her. As we walked through the neighbourhood, she began speaking, this time with more detail, some halting language and lots of emotion.

As the flow of words slowed, I asked a few questions for clarification and invited her to elaborate on her feelings. As she did so, the heightened emotions lessened and some perspective began to emerge for her. She started to make connections with other events and even began thinking of some strategies to move forward. As the conversation wound down, her comment was, “Thank you for listening.”

“Thank you for listening.” The episode leads me to wonder: how well do I really listen to others? Whose heart do I hear? Are there people in my life who would love for me to listen to them but I tune them out for various reasons? How can I be a better listener to those around me?

I think also about the people who listen to me in a heartfelt manner. With whom am I free to express my deepest feelings, knowing I will be understood? Do I express my appreciation for them for the gift of their listening?

Finally, I am led to look at my prayer time, my conversations with God. Distracted, inattentive, superficial: I can be all of these things in prayer. I have ears to hear but, too often, the receptors are off. What might happen if, “Speak Lord, I’m listening,” was my prayer and deep listening my practice?

“True beauty is a warm heart, a kind soul, and an attentive ear,” writes Ken Poirot. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all listened more with the ears of our hearts? Then “Thank you for listening” would not be such a rare comment, and we’d all be the happier for it.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.