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The importance of listening well

Group members listening to each other

Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne asserts, “Listening well changes you. It can change your mind, change your decision-making, even change your life. When you’re asked to listen, really listen!”


JENNIFER BROWNE

Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, Michigan Conference

I am writing this article in the middle of August, a time when I expected our world, or at least our nation, would be returning to “normal” … kids would be back to school in-person; I would be going to the gym and the movies; we would all be singing in church; I would spend much less time on Zoom and much more time in the physical presence of my colleagues and friends. I eagerly anticipated all of those changes, whether or not we had to wear masks to do them.

Instead, the time of waiting and uncertainly continues. And the number of unresolved issues in our lives seems to be increasing —

  • the Delta variant of the coronavirus;
  • the continuing delay of General Conference;
  • the destructive results of extreme weather and its connection to human-caused climate change;
  • the complicated and painful situations related to immigration;
  • the culture wars that continue to divide our nation.

As things continue to change, as conflicts go unresolved, and the eagerly anticipated “return to normal” continues to elude our grasp, it’s easier than ever to assign blame. It’s easier than ever to circle our political, theological, and social wagons to live in an “us vs. them” world.

Therefore it’s more important than ever that we listen well to each other.

I drive an hour’s distance from my home to have my hair cut by a stylist who listens well to me. At first, the listening I appreciated had to do with my hair. Now, many years later, it has to do with how she listens to the rest of what I say. For example, the other day, I complimented Naomi on how well she remembered details about my family – where my kids live, how old my grandson is, etc. “You have an amazing memory,” I said. “Were you just born with it?”

“Actually, I don’t think it has to do with memory,” she responded. “I think it has to do with listening well.”

 Listening well. It’s an art I was not born with but have tried to improve over the years. I was many years into my pastoral role before I truly understood that it was not my job – nor was it usually even helpful – to try to fix the problems others brought to me. Instead, it was my job to listen well: to hear their story, to reflect back to them what I’d heard, to keep my opinions to myself, to accompany them on the path to their own solution.

Listening well doesn’t necessarily include agreement, but it does include consideration. This is the difference between listening and hearing. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but usually, hearing refers to the physical act of receiving and decoding sounds. At the same time, listening is a psychological (and spiritual!) act that includes paying attention, pondering, seeking to understand.

While one might listen well and continue to disagree, one might also find that listening well changes you. It can change your mind, change your decision-making, even change your life. When you’re asked to listen, really listen, you’re being asked to do something important and consequential.

The first verse of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, reads, Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!” (Deuteronomy 6:4, Common English Bible)

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that when Jesus was identified as God’s beloved Son, God also said, “Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35, CEB)

In this context, listen doesn’t just mean hear. It means to consider, understand, digest. Allow what I have to say to become part of you, even to transform you.

Even when we don’t agree, listening to another is a necessary and foundational part of healing. To get through this continuing season of change, uncertainty, and brokenness, we will have to listen well to each other.

In a recent training session on sexual ethics and misconduct, Becky Posey Williams of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women said this —

It is no small matter to be a witness to another person’s story.

People yearn to be heard. We must be intentional in practicing open and honest questions and holding with respect the other’s story.

We must never forget the enduring power of listening well.

As summer 2021 rounds its final curve and moves toward fall, we are not where we had hoped to be! The debates about fundamental aspects of life like safety, identity, integrity, and justice rage on around us. They are reasons for anxiety and even fear.

They are also opportunities for listening well to each other.

May God give us the wisdom to do so.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…. (James 1:19, NRSV)