Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Art of Listening

We have probably seen this familiar scene on TV or in the movies: the camera is focused on an object of the room, while we hear an individual speaking of his or her personal and intimate emotions and thoughts out loud. The camera slowly spans the room to show us who is speaking and where he or she is seated, or in this case, lying down. Continuing slowly to span the room, the cameras stops upon the frame of an older man with grey hair. He is sitting facing an individual who is lying down on a couch. The man, apparently a Psychoanalyst, is writing something on a notepad, as the patient speaks. Moving again, the camera comes to rest just behind the Psychoanalyst, and gives us a view of what he is writing. More often than not, in film, what the camera shows the viewer is that the Psychoanalyst is writing a shopping list. And when he is not writing that list, or planning a menu, he is doodling on the page. So much for hundreds of dollars an hour for someone to listen empathetically. Hopefully, this is only a satirical portrayal of a psychoanalytic session and as such is the exception. Unfortunately the satire could also be about us; we're the non-therapists who do not truly listen, but remain preoccupied while others are speaking.

Listening is more than just hearing spoken words. It is a task that requires the
focus of our full attention to the person speaking. True listening is actually
empathetic listening. It is listening with the intent to experience the other person's point of view as well as the emotions they are feeling. As well as reflecting those emotions and thoughts back as we respond. Empathetic listening is what is referred to by the expressions, "put yourself in their shoes, or walk a mile in their moccasins." While we know these sayings, it is still difficult for us to put them into practice, for it means that we must make a space for the other person in our thoughts. Yet most of the time, we are so preoccupied that we are not free to listen. We are so tired, hungry,or weary, that we are not even willing to listen deeply and actively.

What empathetic listening is not: is not paying attention just enough to hear a problem and provide a solution. It isn't "self- interestedly" hearing the other person drone on in the background of our mind, while we wait for them to finish speaking (so that we can speak). And it isn't waiting to hear what they have to say, just to form a rebuttal. Seemingly unbeknownst to the majority of us who listen this way, rarely is anyone awaiting our particular solution or clever answer. Rarely is the person we're pretending to listen to, unaware -- they are desperate to be heard. Ironically, while we listen to others in this rather selfish, self-centered way, we usually really want others to listen to, and hear us.

Its true that actively listening while taking in the other person's words, intonations, physical gestures and facial expressions is hard work. Its also true that we can't do it alone. It takes superhuman strength, supernatural love -- like the love of God--to make empathetic, active listening a reality in our lives. Christ has said that with Him all things are possible and that those who are in Him are strengthened to do all things-- and that means empathetically listening. By the faith of Jesus, this is possible, for all things are possible to those who believe (Mark 9:23, Mark 11:23, 24 and Phil. 4:13).

Throughout the scripture we find that Christ Himself, listened empathetically. He listened both to His Father, and to the people. Christ even listened to the Pharisees. He understood their position and what led them there. Unfortunately, the Pharisees didn't listen to Jesus. Oh they heard Him all right, but they did not listen. They did not care for the context of His message. They did not care for the deeper meaning His words implied. And they certainly did not want to know what listening further would require of them. Yet for all these things, they heard enough to be found guilty for what they could have known and chose not to.

Christ has given many warnings to His followers through the Word. He has
admonished us to hear, and to be willing to do all of His good pleasure (Mark 4:9; Phil. 2:13). He has encouraged us by saying that those who have ears to hear (and the seed falls on good ground) bear fruit aplenty, and build on the rocky foundation of the principles of His kingdom (Mark 4:9, 23, 24; Matt. 7: 24-27; Luke 12:32). And in turn we can identify with the Psalmist as he implores the Lord to listen: Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications Ps. 230:2).

Following is a quote from the Adult teacher's lesson from one who learned to listen well.

"The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists
of listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His
Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen
to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives us His Word
but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our
brother when we listen to him. . . . But Christians have forgotten
that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who
is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We
should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God."
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper and Row,
1954), pp. 97-99. From the Adult Teacher Sabbath School Bible study
Guide page 88.)

Friends, let's be willing to be made willing to listen. Our salvation as well as that of others depends on it.
Maria Greaves-Barnes & Raul Diaz

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