Good listening

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. – Luke 10:1-6

When I was in graduate school learning to become a psychotherapist we studied all sorts of theories and ways of practicing the “talk cure” – Freudian psychoanalysis, Rogerian reflective listening, cognitive psychotherapy, Jungian analysis and so on. Naturally we wondered which brand was most effective. And – no surprise – researchers had studied this question. Through extensive client interviews at varying periods after the termination of therapy, they had sought to determine which practice worked best to heal people and which produced cures that lasted over time. What they discovered was that each form was powerful in making people better, but none was more effective than another. So next they asked what element, common to all these ways of working with people, most correlated with healing. The answer turned out to very simple. It was the ability of the therapist to listen. The better the listening on the therapist’s part, the greater the healing.

Listening is healing. It is the basis for good friendship and good community. Think about your own experiences. How many times have you said about a good conversation, “I loved talking to so-and-so because they gave me such good advice?” No, usually we say, “that was a wonderful experience because I felt so understood. So-and-so really ‘gets’ me.” Being heard means being valued. And any time we have felt marginalized we have probably also felt like no one really cared to listen to us.

Listening is also dangerous. To be a good listener, we have to come into a situation like Jesus’ disciples did: “carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals.” It truly is like being lambs amid wolves. Anything with which we might identify, that might distinguish us as one sort of individual or another, is put aside. Thus we are thoroughly open.

Hearing someone into understanding means moving from a focus of wanting to instruct and inform into a place of letting go in order to really comprehend what is being shared. In this place we ask questions solely for the purpose of getting more information. We reflect on what we have heard only to make certain we really understand. We have nothing in our hands or behind our backs, so to speak. If the speaker can make an impression on our vulnerable souls with their story, then they will have been well listened to. And we will come away changed.

It is like entering into the other’s house. We come into the place in which they live – their context of thinking and feeling through which they perceive the world, make decisions, and establish or sever bonds. Like Jesus’ followers we abide with them, eating and drinking what they provide. If there is peace to be shared, we will come to share it. If not, we will go our separate ways.

There’s an interesting reciprocity in this. The one sharing the story welcomes the listener into the intimate personal space of their lives. The listener welcomes the story-sharer into the open but protected space of the listening. Both are vulnerable. Both get something out of the exchange.

When we hear one another into understanding something magic happens. It is as though light comes over the rim of the world and everything that was visible only in silhouette takes on depth and color. It is as though a warm wind blows on frozen ground and all the little plants begin to bloom. It is as though something of God’s dream for us enters the three dimensional world and takes root there. The kingdom of God has come near.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado

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