How to Really Listen

How do you actually listen?  Are you the type of person who is busy waiting for a pause to get out what you think or connect it to your own life or experience?  Are you a generous listener  A question asker?  Why do you ask questions?  Is it to gain empathy or get the gory details?

Listening is hard.

We're walking through Job right now as a church & yesterday Jen spoke on how Job's three friends failed to sit with him in silence & solidarity.  So here's a few stories & thoughts that might be a practical help on learning the art of listening.

A few months ago I was in Pittsburgh Airport after a conference.  A large group of attendees ended up there at the same time and so we did lunch together but as it dispersed I ended up talking to this one guy I had only just met in the last hour of the conference.  I can't recall how we got onto the conversation but he shared with me that a few months ago he had been at a personal & professional crossroads and a friend of his had set up a "clearness committee" to help him & his wife make a decision on how to move forward.

This ancient Quaker practice of the "clearness committee" can "help you to learn the value of asking open, honest questions, to experience how everyone has an inner teacher, and to see what happens when we commit to the ideas of no fixing, advising, saving or correcting one another."

You can probably already see what this has to do with Job & why I was so taken with it.

Fast forward almost a year & once again at a Jesuit retreat center I found myself face to face with a shorter version that seemed related to this practice that I found super helpful.  I'd like to outline it here for use in your small group or friendship circle with the caveat that done well it is a positive experience for everyone involved but done poorly, it can cause hurt and even harm.

  1. Get into a group of 3 people and pray out loud invoking the Spirit for help, calm, honesty & empathy to flow in & around this practice.
  2. Decide the order in which people will speak
  3. Spend a minute in complete silence, be aware of your breath, be present, settle yourself down to listen deeply
  4. The first person speaks uninterrupted for 10 minutes.  No one is allowed to respond verbally or interact besides maintaining eye contact.  If the person runs out of things to say in the 10 minutes leave the rest of the time for silence but that whole time is theirs to say exactly what is on their heart and mind.
  5. Once the 10 minutes are up fall into silence again for a whole minute.  Pray silently for the person's story and for all they've said.  Pray for questions to arise in you that will help the other person to feel clarity.
  6. After the minute of silence there are 3 minutes in which the other two people can speak & ask questions of the first speaker.  No judgement statements are allowed, only affirming ones eg "I heard how much you love your children & how concerned you are for them".  Likewise the questions should be open & honest.  See point 5 here on this blog for great examples of this type of questioning.  Remember this feedback is to provide clarity to the speaker not fulfill your desire for details, curiosity or gossip.
  7. Once the 3 minutes are up you fall again into silence & then the process moves on to the second speaker.
  8. At the end of the exercise pray out loud again thanking God for the gift of silence, clarity, of empathetic listening.
  9. One really big thing to note is that this has to be a completely safe space.  You are not permitted to talk about anything that was said in this circle of trust again unless the speaker engages with you about that & seeks further communication.  Even in this circumstance please be conscious of the rules of open & honest questions.

For me this experience was so liberating because I felt like I didn't have to be the bearer of someone else's burdens.  In the silences in between I felt the presence of God comforting, guiding, convicting & I knew that it was not my job to judge.  I also was amazed at how long 10 minutes felt & wondered if I'd ever given other people so much open space to talk.  Just sitting silently & listening knowing that I couldn't respond very quickly released me from the burden to get involved, to interject myself or my own experience.

I want to sign off from this quote from this website all about the clearness committee which I highly recommend you digging into:

Many of us face a dilemma when trying to deal with a personal problem, question, or decision. On the one hand, we know that the issue is ours alone to resolve and that we have the inner resources to resolve it, but access to our own resources is often blocked by layers of inner “stuff”—confusion, habitual thinking, fear, despair. On the other hand, we know that friends might help us uncover our inner resources and find our way, but by exposing our problem to others, we run the risk of being invaded and overwhelmed by their assumptions, judgments, and advice—a common and alienating experience. As a result, we often privatize these vital questions in our lives: at the very moment when we need all the help we can get, we find ourselves cut off from both our inner resources and the support of a community.