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Posts Tagged ‘listening’

Why We Must Listen, and Listen, and Listen Again

This isn’t about aural listening per se, but I think the lesson still applies.

Today my church’s lectionary (a fixed order of sacred texts for each day of the year) prescribed the reading of Matthew 19:1-12, in which Jesus speaks out on divorce. In keeping with the monastic tradition that I’m associated with, Igive these lectionary passages a slow, contemplative reading, listening to how the passage speaks to my heart more than my head.

The first time through, the liturgy from weddings past echoed in my mind: “That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The second time through, I heard what I’ve always heard in this passage: Jesus holds marriage as sacred, regards divorce as a necessary evil, and has some tough words about remarrying—the sort of thing that does not go down well when your country’s divorce rate hovers around 40 percent.

Something, though, made me linger.

As I wandered through a third time, another insight emerged. Nearly every reference has to do with a man divorcing his wife—not the other way around. As noted in Breakthrough: The Bible for Young Catholics, “Women in Jesus’ culture had very few rights and were basically considered the property of their husbands.” A divorced woman would have been extremely vulnerable economically and socially.

Maybe this passage isn’t about divorce in general, then. Maybe it’s about men and the imperative for them to treat their partners with reverence—along with the implicit message that the women they thought were their property really are much more.

So which interpretation is correct? Both? Neither? I can’t tell you for sure—even the notes in my Bibles don’t agree. The point here, though, is this:

There’s a risk in thinking we’ve listened enough. Just when we think we “get it”—whether “it” is the meaning of a familiar sacred text, the situation of a friend in crisis, or the experience of historically oppressed groups—we may suddenly stumble upon a deeper perspective, or a whole new level of nuance, or a different side to the issue that has completely escaped us. Which calls us to listen first, last, and always.

In any isolated instance, of course, we may have to wrap up our listening for reasons of time or schedule. But we’re on thin ice in thinking we’ve “arrived” at enlightenment on any given issue and therefore need listen no more.


As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been away from this page for a couple of months. One reason for that involves a difficult experience that I’m starting to think—and write—my way through; you’ll see more on that in cyberspace over the next weeks and months. Another reason has to do with the strategic planning I’ve been doing with regard to The Dialogue Venture. As a result of that planning, you will probably see more of me in places like HuffPost Religion and, I hope, the Christian Century blog (my first post for them—yay!—is here) and the Doing Dialogue blog for the Public Conversations Project and various other places. Because I’m only one person, though, that means I’ll be blogging here on an occasional basis rather than the weekly or biweekly articles I’ve posted till now. Please feel welcome to stay in touch, watch this page, and check my screed elsewhere on the web too.

Listening: You Can Always Learn More

Somewhere around fifth grade, our class had a unit on “being a good listener.” I think it lasted a week. Now, in contrast, I’m starting to think we can never learn enough about listening—or listen as deeply as we could.

This idea started emerging a few weeks ago, during the 34th annual convention of the International Listening Association. Surely there was a lot to learn, with sessions on pre-listening (that was the session I co-facilitated with author Kay Lindahl), listening in education and healthcare, listening across cultures, the measurement of listening, cognitive processes, and other topics. Academic papers were read, capstone presentations presented, meditation practiced, and participants sent out to a nearby park to offer “Free Listening” to passers-by.

Since listening plays an indispensable role in dialogue, and I’ve been practicing dialogue for years, I think of myself as a good listener. Still, this conference deepened my approach to listening—and taught me several other lessons as well. A few of my personal highlights:

  • In An Introduction to Compassionate Listening, I heard about—and experienced—attentive listening taken to an entirely new level. We listened with our hands on our hearts, to remind us continually of the source of listening with compassion. We fixed our gaze on another person and listened with full focus, dispensing with any reaction whatever (even the head nod). We heard of a facilitator’s upcoming life decision and spoke what we heard of her situation, feelings, and values.
  • In our session, I was reminded that nothing is as important as what happens during the session, in that room, at that time. The first two parts of our presentation (about contemplation and reflection to prepare our souls for listening) ran long, so I had to jettison a third part for which I’d prepared extensively. No matter. What actually happened—what we as a group created in that session—was far more fruitful than anything I could script.
  • In Listening through Strategic Questioning, I got healed—I think. Rick Bommelje, president of the Leadership & Listening Institute at Rollins College, facilitated a session in which we practiced asking “honest, open questions” of one another: questions to which the questioner cannot possibly know the answer, questions designed to facilitate the hearer’s listening to her “inner teacher.” In a small group, I spoke openly of the doubt that has plagued me continually over the past several years. Somehow, giving voice to this doubt, and pondering the questions that followed, have replaced the doubt with a confidence I had not known before. Talk about power.

How much difference can one conference make? Since ILA, I find myself saying less—and stopping when my “inner teacher” tells me I have taken up my share of the airwaves. I find myself listening without response, posing open and honest questions, focusing more intently on everyone and everything around me. I have done most of these things before. I am doing them more consistently now.

What is the most powerful experience you have had while listening, or being listened to? Please feel free to share them here or on Facebook.

A Meditation on Your Adversary

I’m trying out a new meditation exercise. If you like, give it a whirl, and see what you think.

Prepare for meditation in the usual way. Sit comfortably, eyes open or closed. Take a few deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Let your mind go blank.

Now, focus your attention on someone who drives you berserk.

It could be someone you know personally, someone in the media…whoever. The key is to simply observe that person. If you start to judge her or his opinions, marshal counterarguments, or feel your blood pressure rise, note it, and let it go.

If extraneous thoughts arise, note them too, and let them go. If they keep returning, pay attention. Someone may be trying to tell you something.

I tried this exercise for the first time at the 34th annual convention of the International Listening Association, where I had the privilege of presenting with listening expert and friend Kay Lindahl. During the session, we ran a 10-minute meditation period in which participants could focus their attention in one of several directions. A few people tried the exercise above, and the results (like so many things at this conference) were deeply satisfying.

One participant spoke of an adversary at work, and how observing him in the meditation raised open, honest questions about why he was so confrontational. Another participant described an obnoxious client and how the meditation framed the issue at hand (he saw the conflict as standing at the gates of hell).

Meanwhile, I focused on someone who has encroached substantially on my personal space. The desire of my heart is to extend compassion to this person, but in the meditation I confronted my inability to do so, due to my standard response to encroachment: to push away. I wondered if there was another way into that compassion.

In each case, the meditation began to break up logjams, however large or small. I wonder if that’s the value of it: it surfaces our emotional reactions to the adversary, the conditions of mind and spirit that block us from connecting with that person, new insights about the conflict that ease our hostility and move us toward alternatives for approaching it.

At any rate, I offer it to you as a possible tool toward inner transformation, and from there to reconciliation. If you use it, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to share them here, on my Facebook page, or via direct contact.


Dialogue and a Deeper Listening

Listening reminds me of a pool: just when you think you’ve plumbed its depths, you find more depths to plumb. Two recent encounters with listening brought this home for me.

First, some context. Dialogue only happens when we listen. Listening is not the same as hearing: we might hear any sonic input at any time—ignoring it, giving it fleeting attention, or focusing on it as we see fit—but we listen with a clear mind, an open heart, and our total attention devoted to the other person. That allows us entry, unfiltered, into the other’s way of thinking.

One treasure of contemplative spirituality is that listening becomes a way of approaching all of life—a habit of the heart, if you will. We listen to God, to the flora and fauna of the natural world, to the prevailing culture, to hidden messages, to everything that communicates. Every now and then, this listening stance produces some extraordinary discoveries, such as…

Listening from within another’s point of view. This, to me, is one step beyond listening open-heartedly to another’s perspective; it involves climbing into that perspective and thinking from inside it, the better to grasp its nuances and shake free more wisdom. When asking my Facebook friends about their experiences with Holy Week, I specifically addressed my query to Christians, figuring that people who did not identify as Christian would neither know nor care about the topic. That assumption nearly cut me off from the insights of one of my atheist friends, who showed a remarkable ability to think from within the Christian tradition and meld it into his own thinking. The Public Conversations Project published my article about this experience; feel free to take a look for the details.

Listening to our thoughts before we think them. Late last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Justine Willis Toms for a future installment of New Dimensions Radio. (The program is slated to run sometime this summer.) During the interview, in which we quickly established a deep listening connection with each other, she asked me a question about the nature of God, and I responded with my latest thinking. What stunned me, though, were the ideas coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t thought of before. I do not know where these ideas came from, but I had the eye-opening experience of learning from them. The beauty of listening as a habit of the heart is that we are listening to everything, even to ourselves as new insights emerge from us.

Have you had experiences like this—the word magical or miraculous may apply—when listening deeply to another person? Feel free to share them here.

Why Should I Listen to You?

Yes, I admit it. The question in the title isn’t terribly nice. It usually precedes a dismissive statement: “Why should I listen to you? You got us lost last time.” “Why should I listen to you? You don’t know anything.”

Our ironic postmodern culture is very good at dismissive. We’re always scoping out the credentials behind the statement—and the hidden agenda behind the credentials. “Why should I listen to you? You’re a [liberal/atheist/fundamentalist/Wall Street trader/Tea Partier/socialist/wingnut].”

But is there something to the question? Why should I listen to you (or read your book, or visit your blog, etc.)? Is it legitimate to pay more attention to one person’s opinions than another’s?

Sure it is. But we can take it too far.

First, a review of the reasons why some opinions are more equal than others:

  • Expertise. If I can’t grasp the potential hazards of offshore oil drilling, I’ll give more credence to a mechanical engineer than to a U.S. senator or my Green Party friend who doesn’t understand the technical side.
  • Vested interests. Yes, agendas do play a role. If that mechanical engineer depends on ExxonMobil for her livelihood, I’ll take that into account when weighing her words.
  • Track record. Over the years I have found David Brooks and Thomas Friedman to be thoughtful, incisive analysts who approach each new issue free of rigid party-line bias. So when they write about the next big issue I’m more inclined to trust them.
  • Time. I haven’t read any books by Richard Dawkins, the prominent thinker who often writes against the concepts of God and religion. I might gain a lot by reading Dawkins, and I’d certainly sit down with his articles or blog. But I only have so much time—and given what I know, I’ve decided that reading an entire book like his God Delusion is not the best use of it.

So. All we do is use this set of filters to decide whom to hear and whom to dismiss, right?

Not so fast. There’s an important distinction to be made here.  We can certainly dismiss ideas. We should never dismiss people.

Two reasons why. First, people are always surprising us. Perhaps my Green Party friend has done extensive research on drilling technology. Maybe Richard Dawkins has a message I need to consider. If we dismiss these folks entirely from our consciousness, we cut ourselves off from any opportunity to hear a perspective that could broaden our own. Those opportunities—and the wisdom they may engender—are too valuable to pass up.

The second reason has to do with intrinsic human worth. Nearly all faith traditions (not to mention other worldviews) find inestimable value in human beings. By paying attention to people, we affirm that value. We honor the person behind the opinion. And we fulfill the imperative toward compassion that springs from the heart of the Divine.

What about you? To whom do you pay attention? Are there some people whose opinions you can barely tolerate? How do you deal with that?

Dialogue With the Believer Who Believes Something Else

Let’s say you’ve been on planet Earth awhile—at least 20 years—and you’re basically settled on your beliefs about the life, the universe, and everything. Some of those beliefs may be non-negotiable. You might even believe that your worldview is the one and only truth; others, while they might hold bits of truth here and there, are fundamentally incorrect.

Why on earth would you want to listen to someone who believes something else?

This is no idle question. We’ve all known people who won’t listen. To some degree, we are those people. I once submitted an idea for a convention workshop and was rejected because I wasn’t conservative enough for the sponsor—even though the topic had nothing to do with being conservative or liberal. They just didn’t want to hear me.

OK, so back to the question. Why listen? I can think of three reasons right off the bat. See what you think, and please feel free to add your own.

 1. You want to share the great things about your worldview, and listening gets your foot in the door.

 There’s nothing wrong with sharing your enthusiasm for the beliefs that live close to your heart. But be forewarned: in today’s skeptical culture, listening as pretense to talking will likely get you nowhere. Between political campaigns and wall-to-wall advertising, the speed of the Internet and our national ADD, people have become exquisitely tuned to ulterior motives. They also turn off at the first whiff of anything that sounds like a sales pitch. At the same time, they hunger to be heard. The best way to make an impact on someone in those conditions is to listen: first, last, and sometimes only.

 2. The other person might know something.

Even if your worldview is The Truth, it’s not The Exhaustive Truth: it cannot possibly cover every situation relating to God, the world, the human race, etc. The Bible says nothing directly about genetic engineering; might you learn something—maybe something new and consistent with your worldview—if your dialogue partner is a secular geneticist? If you are a Christian (whose tradition says something about meditation but not a ton), might you gain insights on meditation from a Buddhist, then adapt them to your own faith?

3. You get to practice love.

Love is central to nearly every faith tradition—but you don’t need a faith tradition to see that loving makes us better people. It involves putting ourselves aside, at least in the moment, for the good of the other. This kind of love is best honed when it extends to people who are not like us. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (5:46-47), “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”

So there are three reasons for anyone and everyone to take part in dialogue, regardless of convictions. Can you think of others?

Dialogue Every Day, Dialogue Everywhere

Dialogue professionals think of dialogue as a process, and to a large extent they’re right. Process plays a big role in bringing people together and helping them reach across divides.

Still, I tend to define dialogue more broadly. Besides the scheduled conversations and formal meetings, dialogue is something that can happen anytime, anywhere, even without warning—a spontaneous event and a response from the heart.

Earlier this week I wrote something for a CEO. I knew I hadn’t nailed it: his ideas were all there, but his voice didn’t come through as it should—even though the text was nearly verbatim from my last interview with him. I was at a dead end, so I sent it to my contact at the CEO’s company for her feedback.

She saw the problem too, and responded with input that I never would have come up with. Her specific edits may or may not make the final piece, but in some ways it doesn’t matter (just as it doesn’t matter whether my bon mots make the cut). More important, her insights sparked a new point of view that helped me get back on track.

To make the final text the best it could be, I needed her.

That, to me, is dialogue, just as much as processes like Open Space or World Café or Appreciative Inquiry. The give-and-take lifted me out of my own one-person’s perspective—one perspective among billions—and helped me see things in a different light. 

And this is why I believe dialogue as a habit of the heart is so essential. If we cultivate the inner attitudes that facilitate dialogue—openness, humility, a passion for truth seeking, a willingness to risk—we will be ready for these chance encounters. We will naturally respond with an open spirit and a listening ear, no matter what comes our way.

This is even more important when it comes to our adversaries, because they set off the automatic fight-or-flight response within us. As we cultivate “the spirit of dialogue” within ourselves, we will notice that response replaced with something else: curiosity. “How dare you believe that?” is replaced with “How did you come to that?” “I don’t want to discuss it” yields to “Tell me your thinking.”

When was the last time you experienced everyday dialogue like this? What did you learn? How did it make you feel? Feel free to share your thoughts.

The Next Step Past Dialogue, or, What I’m Learning by Reading the Qur’an

About a week before Terry Jones hit the news, I started to read the Qur’an.

This is an imperfect venture if there ever was one. Not knowing the original Arabic, I’m relying on an English translation. Because the book is difficult even for scholars, I should probably be using commentaries. If I fuss with these “shoulds” and imperfections, however, I’ll never do it. So I pick up the holy book of my Muslim friends and struggle along.

While I’m not terribly far in, some things are already becoming apparent. The language is masterful, even in English. Many of the concepts also appear in the Bible: God’s justice and mercy, the imperative to care for the vulnerable, warnings to unbelievers. The text is sprinkled with pithy wisdom that stops me short and commands my attention. Reading it appears to feed my soul.

What a shame to burn something like that.

But what do reading the Qur’an (and similar practices) have to do with dialogue? They deepen dialogue in at least two respects.

First, a large part of dialogue involves listening with an open heart. We tend to think of this in terms of face-to-face listening: I grab a coffee with a Muslim friend and listen while he explains his faith to me. But this listening gets even deeper when we immerse ourselves in what the other is immersed in. Think of it as the difference between tolerating your spouse’s passion for opera, attending Carmen with her, and taking an opera appreciation course.

Second, as we’ve discussed before, one great way to break through our stereotypes of a particular group is to spend time with members of that group. We get to know them even more intimately when we experience the things that make them tick. Let’s say you believe that all French hate Americans. Then Jacques shows up at work one day and befriends you, which throws serious doubt on your stereotype. What finishes it off, though, is visiting Normandy and enjoying a warm welcome from everyone you meet.

It’s the difference between listening to others and—however temporarily or imperfectly—entering their world.

This is not an either/or thing. Even when we enter their world, we will need their help to fully understand what’s going on. Though I’m reading the Qur’an on my own, I’ll eventually need the insight of scholars to interpret the sometimes baffling text. And of course, time and energy and other commitments inevitably constrain us from immersing ourselves in every other person’s life, in every other culture, at this level.

But imagine what would happen if all of us did this with even one person, or one group—especially a group we see as our adversary. How much could this advance the cause of peace?