I had dinner recently with a friend who I only see a few times a year. It was a late dinner, at the end of a very long workday, and I was very tired on my there. I was worried that I wouldn’t be a very good dinner companion.
But as we talked, I began to feel better and better, and I realized that the improvement in my mood was due to a gift that my friend has — he is excellent at being an active listener. He was truly interested in what I had to say, asked insightful questions, and didn’t jump in immediately to redirect the conversation back to himself. The experience was a great reminder that being a good listener is a real gift that we can give all the people in our lives.
Our society tends to privilege the talking part of communication — if you take a class in communications, it often focuses on how you communicate to others. Classes in how to be a good listener seem to be much more rare! And so it is a real treat when we come across someone who listens well.
In training to be a spiritual director, I have taken classes that teach listening skills — and the very first step can be surprisingly hard: shut up! I invite you to try this exercise in listening sometime: ask a friend or family member an open-ended question (one that doesn’t have a yes or no answer, and one to which you couldn’t possibly know the answer), and then, as they talk, simply listen for ten minutes. Don’t interrupt even to clarify or ask follow-up questions. Don’t pretend to listen while you are planning in your head what you will say next. Do absolutely nothing other than listen to what the other person has to say. It may feel very strange at first, because we are so used to interrupting each other in conversations and not really listening because we are figuring out what we want to say when they are finished. As you listen this way more and more, you will find that your conversations and relationships with others become deeper and more meaningful — and your friends and relatives will be grateful, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what is different!
The skill of listening can be a powerful addition to our prayer lives as well. Just as our communication with others in our lives tends to emphasize how we talk to them, our prayer lives often center on our talking to God. The practice of shutting up and listening for God’s still small voice can lead to unexpected insights into our truest, deepest selves and into how God is at work in our lives. And just as practicing better listening deepens our relationships with our friends, it can also help us to deepen our relationship with God.
So why not try giving the gift of listening to those around you, to God, and to yourself? Who knows what you might hear?!