Posts Tagged ‘listening’

The Weirdest Common Ground Ever

Many people are bemoaning America’s vicious public square. Few are discussing the weird common ground that most of us share—and what might be the best way to address it.

Two recent conversations brought this into focus for me. The first—with a conservative Christian friend who reluctantly supported Donald Trump—fulfilled a longing I’ve had since the 2016 election: to talk with people like her and understand their thinking. Over the past two years, I’ve asked my Trump-supporting friends for a conversation, but almost none of them would engage with me.

I thought I knew why, and my friend confirmed it: they’re scared to death. They’ve been disparaged and harassed and even attacked by some people on the left, or they’ve heard reports of such abuse, and they don’t want to get hurt.

If you’ve listened to progressives, you know they’re scared to death too. Their fear (from what I’ve heard) seems to focus more on the damage Mr. Trump might wreak on our rights, our system of government, and our world. I’m sure some of them also fear being attacked by members of the right.

It’s not a big stretch to say, in the colorful language of my father, that we’re all scared shitless. Fear is a weird common ground, but common ground it is.

Yes, we can argue that one group or another has a lot more to be scared about, or has endured more decades of disparagement and harassment. In many cases, those claims deserve careful reflection and appropriate action. But what if we also focused—in a separate context, or just for a while—on our common terror? What if we admitted that the person on the other side who makes our blood boil is likely as fearful as we are?

Have you ever noticed what happens to your heart when a child tells you she’s scared? Mine melts. I want to hold her and let her know she’s safe. My love for her overflows. Could the same happen when an adversary says she’s scared?

That leads me to the second conversation, which contains a weird idea for addressing this fear. I’ll post about it next week.

The Second Step Toward Dialogue Is a Doozy

People ask me what my book is about. I tell them it’s about how to change from the inside out so you can talk with people who drive you nuts.

They say, “Boy, do I know someone who could use your book.”

That response always makes me laugh. So I’m reluctant to admit there’s a problem with it.

I’ve seen the problem repeatedly over the past two years—ever since the 2016 presidential election changed so much about the way we talk (or rather, don’t talk) and live with one another in the U.S.

Over and over again, on social media and at family gatherings and after church and who knows where else, I hear people bemoan the state of America’s public square. We are so polarized, they say. No one talks anymore. Everyone shouts at each other. The world is filled with outrage. If only we’d listen.

This recognition of our parlous state is, I think, the first wobbly step toward dialogue. You have to know there’s a problem before you can start to resolve it, right?

The dead end comes in the (usual) second step.

Right after no one talks anymore etc., many people follow up with some version of it’s the other side’s fault.

I heard it again at a gathering of relatives recently. One person, a brilliant and ardent conservative, noted the lack of dialogue and proceeded to lay the blame on the political left. At my (liberal) church, the talk shifts from “how bad it is” to bemoaning the right’s contribution.

By the way, these folks have a point. People at the ends of the political spectrum especially, left and right, are contributing to this climate. But while the faultfinding is correct, it’s not useful. It’s a second step that takes us nowhere.

These days I’m pondering a different second step—a step my book alludes to. It asks, how am I contributing to the problem? Or, even better: how can I change so that my contribution inspires harmony rather than hostility?

Let’s be honest. This second step is a doozy. It asks people to look inside themselves, and that’s not always a pleasant view. I know because I’ve done it.

I think a framework of faith and spirit can help here. At their best and fullest, many of our faith traditions encourage us to “examine ourselves” in an effort to become better versions of ourselves. Ideally the process is gentle—not about guilt and judgment, but rather about self-discovery, a flowering of one’s deepest self in a way that makes a difference in the world.

That can be a magnificent adventure. I know because I’ve done it.

If people could take this useful second step, it might change things. But how do you take it? And how can those of us who’ve gone down that road support others as they take that step?

Those are the questions that challenge me right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If You’re Concerned About Listening, and You Want to See Dublin…

I just wrote this for an email list I participate in, and I thought some of you might want to know about it too:

If you’re concerned about the future of listening in today’s noisy world, think about joining me at the 2018 International Listening Association Convention, June 20-23 in Dublin, Ireland.

Travel to Dublin may be more affordable than you’d think. I’ve found airfares in my area (via Norwegian Air) around $400 round trip.

If you’d like to know more, by all means email me.

 

*ILA members come from academia, business, education, healthcare, spirituality, even music, and live in 19 countries around the globe. I’ve also found them to be remarkably warm and welcoming to new folks.

There Is So Much More to Listening, and Life, Than You Ever Imagined

Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.

I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?

In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.

It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.

As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.

For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?

Eventually two things became clear.

First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.

Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?

Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.

For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.

The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.

Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.

A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.

 

Is Dialogue Even Safe in the Trump Era?

As you may have gleaned from the last post, the state of the U.S. is troubling me on a deep level. It has, among other things, left me with no stomach for dialogue—a very strange position for the host of a website called The Dialogue Venture.

This made more sense to me in the immediate wake of the presidential election. A seismic shift like the election of Donald Trump takes some processing. But it’s now December and I still don’t want to talk.

I may, however, be starting to figure out why. And the reasons may bump into some of America’s deepest divides like a dentist’s drill on a raw nerve.

(Warning: some of what follows may induce eyerolling and the no shit, Sherlock response. I will completely understand. More than that, you may know from experience that I’ve got some important stuff in here totally wrong. If that’s true, please tell me.)

Here’s the thing: Reaching out to others in dialogue is a vulnerable act. Just saying “I want to dialogue with you” requires that we let our guard down. This is difficult enough when we do it from a position of strength—when the balance of power is at least equal (or tips to our side), when we feel safe and stable, when we perceive no threats on the horizon.

It’s nearly impossible when those strengths are missing.

As I wrote in my last post, no one who feels disrespected—or invalidated, or invisible, or in any way marginalized—wants to talk with their disrespecters. More broadly, no one wants to talk when they sense a clear and present danger in their environment, when opening up to dialogue carries a high risk of yet another, deeper wound. Only the saintly or heroic can even think of reaching out when vulnerable.

Before November 8—as a white, suburban, straight, genderfluid person—I perceived myself as in a position of relative strength or stability. Yes, people could mock my gender identity, but they were usually strangers and their voices were few. The election of Donald Trump, with his chronic denigration of others, has changed that. Suddenly being different—or even welcoming difference—leaves one open to disrespect and, sometimes, much worse.

It feels like a dark place. And yet there is one fascinating glimmer of light. I wonder if my sense of vulnerability is a teeny-tiny glimpse into the world of so many who have been disrespected every day, all day long, for decades, even centuries.

This feels like what I’ve read about the experience of African Americans, and why many of them view white people’s efforts to reach across divides with distrust and suspicion. This feels like what I’ve read as the reasons for separatist movements. This feels like what I know personally, from my experience as a genderfluid person, as frustration with having to explain, over and over again, who I am and why I am, when people who fit the cultural mold never have to explain. (To make things even more complicated, I know that sometimes it’s really important that I do explain myself, as I wrote here.)

Now, looping back to what I wrote last week:

No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected.

This apparently includes supporters of Mr. Trump. We have all heard the narrative: for a sizable chunk of the U.S. population—many of them middle or working class, living in rural areas, scraping to get by—the impact of global trends has been brutal. Their wages have stagnated, at best, for decades. No one in power, according to this view, is listening to them.

So if they get approached by an affluent professor from a big city, saying, “I want to dialogue with you,” why would they want to?

Now in fact some researchers—like Katherine Cramer from the University of Wisconsin—have made this work. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, for many of us right now, curling into our own worldviews and living there awhile sounds pretty good.

I don’t know what to do with all this. One imperative seems clear: if people don’t want to dialogue right now, we need to respect the living hell out of that. They have some very good reasons. Maybe the only thing we can do now is one-half the hard work of dialogue: shut up and listen.

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?