Becoming a Better Listener
Some people seem to feel spiritual life is like a long series of meetings which never end. We sit and endure people talking even though we do not understand what difference it makes for us. There never seems to be time for questions. It is almost as if spiritual life is designed to discourage us from becoming a better listener.
Many of us experience spiritual life as something we have to do, not something we get to do.
Our spiritual experience may feel like an endless series of conferences. There are people who speak to all of us and then we break into smaller sessions. Even some of the people who stand in front doing the talking seem bored and dissatisfied.
Spiritual life appears to be a part of our lives where there is more talking than listening. Some people go to school for years to be qualified to talk about spiritual life. In many places someone teaches or preaches each week, trying to break spiritual life down into understandable pieces.
Rather than continuing to produce more teaching and training, more words, it might help them, and us, to become a better listener.
How do we listen well? Who or what gets in the way of our listening? How can we become a better listener?
Do we think listening is sitting there struggling not to fall asleep?
Why Is It a Challenge to Be a Better Listener?
We live in a world where listening seems to be less important.
Many of us have grown accustomed to being treated like we are not good listeners. When we make an appointment we are sent reminder after reminder to ensure we understand. We receive phone messages and texts and emails. Some reminders are actually written down on paper. If we were good listeners would we need all those reminders?
Why do people assume we are not listening? One reason is it has become more difficult to listen well.
Listening was one thing when people had contact with only a small number of other people each day. It was less challenging when people spent their lives with people they knew and saw in person. There were fewer distractions. We paid more focused attention to what was happening right in front of us.
Now we live in a world where our context has been transformed. Many of us talk with people on the other side of the country, or halfway around the planet, each day. We pay attention to weather events or political developments in places we have never visited.
Electronic media give us the ability to feel the experiences of being in distant places. It is more difficult to listen when our minds are filled with so many possibilities.
Sitting and listening as part of a group can feel like something we must endure. We experience it as time when nothing is happening. The images and experiences in our memories draw us away from paying attention.
It can be a challenge for us to listen to even one other person. Have we forgotten how to listen, how to reflect, how to pay attention to each other?
How Can We Become a Better Listener?
We live at a time when it has become unusual for people to listen to each other. The loss of our memory of listening contributes to the lack of listening and respect in our society. We are out of practice.
It can be easy for people who want to listen well to begin to feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Can we regain our ability to be a better listener?
Listening is a skill we learn and develop by practicing. There are physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual aspects of our listening.
Becoming a better listener is hard work. We need to be well rested and prepared for the physical experience of listening.
While listening is more than hearing, it is more challenging to listen well when we cannot hear well.
We can gain information and learn lessons about listening which help us become stronger listeners. Learning about listening may spark insights or questions which will contribute to our practice.
Listening well demands emotional depth and maturity. We may need to do some emotional work before we can be a better listener.
We begin to practice listening well by listening to ourselves. Spiritual life draws us to a deeper, more intimate understanding of ourselves. As our relationship to our true selves grows we begin to share ourselves with people around us.
As my own spiritual journey draws me further into connection with myself I am more able to listen better to others.
Some people help us become a better listener by being a challenge which pushes our listening in new directions.
As we practice listening each day, our practices guide us into becoming a better listener.
How Do We Practice Becoming as Better Listener?
As we practice listening, our practice grows within us. We begin to experience listening in new ways.
There is no concise, specific checklist which describes how we practice or become a better listener. It may not be satisfying to hear, but listening well is something we need to experience.
Somewhat like the experience of waking up, we slowly begin to realize we are no longer asleep.
While listening well may seem dramatic as we look back on our experiences, it is a natural process.
We may begin our practice by listening well to ourselves, to our own voices. As we practice we start to notice we have begun listening to other people in new ways. Some of us step toward listening to the world around us first, or listening to sacred stillness.
Each of us develops our practices of listening in our own uniquely personal ways. Listening sprouts and grows within us. Our pattern will be our own, distinct way of growing. We might find ourselves listening in surprising new ways.
How will we practice becoming a better listener today?
Who will help us become a better listener this week?
[Image by ky_olsen]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.