Really Listening

What’s your response when someone tells you about a difficulty they are having? Most of us, or all of us most of the time, typically listen with some compassion and identify with the struggle we are hearing about. One of the remarkable ways in which we become more compassionate is through our own struggles and often, when someone tells us about their struggle, we remember a similar struggle that we have been through. When someone tells me about having the flu, I remember when I had the flu and I empathize with their pain.


We see that happening when we tell someone else about some difficulty we are having. We can tell they are identifying with our pain because typically, right after we have shared what we are going through, the other person starts to tell us about when they or someone they know went through the same thing. What started off as me sharing something about myself turns into me listening to what the other person has dealt with. Some people can skillfully listen to our struggle, share a similar struggle so we’ll know they understand, then shift the conversation back to us and allow us to feel cared for. Others, once they have started sharing their struggle, just keep going on and on about what they had to deal with and the conversation becomes all about them. Not only has that happened to all of us but all of us have done the same thing to others.


Someone I know talked to me recently about having cancer. She said one of the hardest things was that, when she told others about it, they began to tell her about all the people they knew who had cancer and what they went through. “I really needed someone to listen to me,” she said, “but I ended up listening to other people tell me their stories. It felt like my cancer wasn’t as important as theirs.”


Really listening is hard work. We have to pay attention. We have to keep drawing the other person out with questions that are open-ended enough to allow them to tell us what are ready to tell us. The hardest part about really listening is that the conversation must truly be focused on the other person instead of ourselves. All of us are self-centered enough that we try to turn the attention back to us. That may well be because we too need to be listened to and haven’t had anyone devote full attention just to us.


Jesus did a lot of healing and, in all the many accounts of those healings, I never remember Jesus turning the conversation back to himself. He seemed purely concerned with what others were going through. While using Jesus as an example to follow can be a hugely frustrating experience we can learn about some of our potential by watching him. We can also learn about God’s compassion toward us.


All of us need to be heard, honored, listened to, respected. All of us can improve our listening skills. The next time someone tells you something and you think of your own similar experience, let your heart feel the connection but try not to shift the focus off of the other person. Listen generously instead of selfishly.


It’s probably true that we over-share with others because we haven’t felt fully heard. And, if we’re only dependent on fellow humans to be fully heard, we’re apt to be greatly disappointed. God is the one true listener and our times of prayer and meditation are places where we can be truly heard. The silence of God is sometimes interpreted as apathy or distance yet the silence of God can just as easily be seen as selfless attention. “Tell me more,” we might hear in the quiet. “Tell me your whole story because you are loved,” the silence of God may reveal. When we are listening to others, just being quiet and giving them space is the greatest gift we can offer. God offers us that and the better we take advantage of God’s listening, the more fulfilled we are and the more generous we can be as we listen to others.


God hears you. God listens. Give yourself to the Lord daily in prayer and meditation. There you will be honored and respected and given power to find your way. There you will also gain strength to listen to the needs of others. As we are heard we are healed.


Yours faithfully,

Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.