“To be heard is so close to being loved, that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” – Dr. Augsberger
“Christians are amazing listeners!” – No one
In an age of loneliness and despair, religious disaffiliation, persistent inequity, and polarization, wouldn’t it be amazing for Christians to know themselves and be known as “amazing listeners”? This is a key facet of the imago dei that the world is literally dying to experience, and by “the world,” I mean me, and I mean everyone you know. And it’s a great practical starting place for us to focus our energies. (I won’t jump the gun, but you should know how much exuberance I’m restraining right now–because listening, far from being a dry skill or obligation, is the most world-expanding, exciting, personally transformative thing I’ve ever done. And it’s what I hope we all discover!)
So, to back up one step for a moment: the most basic human and spiritual need is to belong. The good news that Jesus brought is that we do. You belong. I belong. We all belong. He came and said as much with his words and his silences, his big and little actions. He affirmed our inherent worth and permanent irreplaceability in his family. He invited us to identify ourselves as people who live out of that fact, and to proclaim that belonging to everyone we meet. But how? Well, we’ve seen a parade of attempts over the centuries. Some deserve a heart emoji, others the green sick face emoji. But I want to suggest looking to Jesus’ example: it starts with listening. Listening to God, to himself, to those around him, and to his context. Out of that matrix of listening he discerned how to act.
If I’ve learned one thing in my personal journey with loneliness (I completed a 25-year loneliness streak, making me an authority!) and my professional career helping others to establish the conditions for belonging, it’s that for all its humble presentation, listening rules. It is the first step towards believing that we belong, and to helping others experience belonging as well.
The bad news, (which maybe isn’t news at all), is that we generally haven’t felt very heard. And when we haven’t felt heard, or seen the centrality of listening modeled and incentivized in our institutions and communities, it makes it difficult to individually organize our lives to become listening presences in the world. But take heart! The great news is that we’re all wired with the capacity to become listening presences in ever-widening and deepening ways that transform the contexts we’re in. We can start by looking to Jesus’ listening model: what mechanics and poetics does he use as a listening presence? What practices, thoughts, feelings, behaviors typify someone who listens? I’d encourage us to do a curiosity reading of the Gospels through this “listening lens” to see what we discover. From there, we can begin together as friends, groups, teams, churches to practice listening skills with each other and those in our spheres of influence and continue to troubleshoot the obstacles to listening. The three main obstacles I observe are: hurry, assumptions, and agendas.
Jesus reminds us to listen more than he reminds us to do anything else in the New Testament. Usually we take this to mean “to him.” Yes, of course. But more than just paying attention to the content of what he’s saying and more than just making a clear request for obedience, he’s uplifting the importance of listening itself. Listening, over time, at increasing depths, and to wide-ranges of experience, shapes us into listeners. And listeners become listening presences that create spaces for others to become listeners as well. We listen first. For as long as it takes for someone to feel heard, seen, known, cared about, and understood.
The time, attention, understanding, and care he extended to everyone around him is seen throughout the Gospels from the woman at the well to the man hanging next to him on the cross; from his disciples to his Father; from the temple to the hillside to the sea. He was always listening, listening, listening. He could hear people’s hearts beyond their words. He could help them hear their own hidden thoughts, fears and needs. People came to Jesus, opened up to Jesus with their most vulnerable experiences, and responded to him because he actually listened to them. It is a transformative space the Holy Spirit inhabits for the listener and the one being heard. Listening is not magic, but it is holy.
Listening Practices: for home, public spaces, school, work, and church
Where do we start? Where we are, as we are. I hope you’ll find at least one practice that resonates with you from the list of five below, or even better, be inspired to come up with your own!
Starbucks and practices of public presence: You can hear more about my own story out of loneliness into belonging by being present daily in a local Starbucks for years on end at this TEDx talk, but for now I’ll just draw out the two foundational listening practices I fell into that made the biggest difference:
Practice 1: The Empty Seat (this creates physical space and time)
Whenever in a public space, leave an empty seat available near you, pay attention to other patrons looking for somewhere to sit, and simply invite them to sit. Easy. You’d be shocked how rare it is for someone to do this.
Practice 2: The Pause (this creates verbal and emotional space)
In conversation with the barista, the customer behind you, etc., pause for a beat after they share to show them that you’re actually listening. This gives you a chance to process what they’re saying and to respond instead of react. This speaks volumes about your sincerity.
CLICK! Friendship Class at USC + with a local PCUSA congregation
My professional career as a belonging expert took off five years ago when institutions became aware that their members were disconnected and lonely, and they wanted to import strategies like what I was doing in the cafes to organically connect with people. I created a 6-week course on making meaningful relationships called CLICK!, piloting it simultaneously at USC and a small PCUSA congregation. CLICK stood for the process of connecting that emerged in the cafe community: Connecting as is, Listening first, Investigating without judgment, Caring, and Keeping in Touch. In both pilot groups, the most healing, empowerment, and transformation came through listening practices. Here are some places to start:
Scan and Close: Preparing to connect is essential in being able to connect meaningfully. Take one minute alone to listen to yourself respond to three questions: “What am I thinking about? How am I feeling emotionally? Where is my energy at physically?” Then ask yourself, “What is preoccupying me that I can intentionally close out like an open tab on my computer to free up my attention?”
The Joy Switch: Neuroscientists have located a “joy switch” in our brains that, when activated, brings our “relational circuitry” online to poise us for positive interactions. Try activating this switch for yourself, with the person you’re meeting, or in your group through sharing good news or what has brought you joy recently at the outset of your time together.
Bonus! Free Listening Practice
You can stand on a corner with a cardboard sign that says, “Free Listening,” and see what happens… My friend, Benjamin Mathes, is an acting coach who was trying to help his students develop empathy for the sake of their acting. This is the activity he had them do. Little did Ben know that this would turn into a transformative experience for his actors and become an international movement that has brought transformation through listening to neighborhoods across the world and to the most divisive convenings on earth. For inspiration and how-tos: https://urbanconfessional.com.