In a recent interview about her appointment from Pope Francis as one of three women to the Dicastery for Bishops, Sister Yvonne Reungoat outlined the qualities we should look for in episcopal candidates. She stated the top quality unequivocally is, “…a bishop (one) must have the ability to listen, both to those who have the same ideas and those who protest.” Got that? Plain and simple, we need listeners as our leaders in the Church. We don’t need the froth and foam of regalia and superfluous pageantry. We don’t need monarchs slogging in the drying cement of power while waving the withering documents of arcane laws they demand we obey. No, we need listeners who warm the chair for us and have the tea and vintage wine on the coffee table so we can settle in for an honest chat.
Listening is hard work. And we all need to do more of it. One of the major forms of listening is called empathic listening. Briefly, this is when we listen as if we were the person talking. We enter this person’s realm of existence no matter how different from our own. We leave judgment, expectations, solutions, and self-assertiveness at the door. When we try to take on another’s feelings at the time, we look them in the eye, we pay no attention at all to our surroundings, we are, in effect, inviting the presence of God into our midst. This type of listening, says Kay Lindahl, founder of The Listening Center, brings forth a ‘creative force’ in the person we are listening to. Ideas begin to flow freely because the creative force is our liberating God. Others call it “the inner spirit, intelligence, the true self.”
The Council is a type of listening method used by Native Americans when someone had to be heard or a case decided by a group. An object is given to the person speaking and while he or she holds it, no one else can speak. The object can be passed to others and the process is repeated. Withholding judgment and letting the words of another seep into our consciousness is paramount. At a pre-determined time, the group leader takes the object and summarizes the arguments presented. A decision is then made in the case.
The fact is that we are ‘rushed’ Americans who take little or no time to sanctify listening. Before we attempt to listen, we need to prepare through meditative and silent prayer. We then need to reflect on our own inner voice—before and during the listening session. This means taking time to breathe deeply, ask for guidance, slow down until wisdom reveals itself. Never speak out of anger when listening. The art of listening well is really a contemplative act; it is a prayer because it surfaces a grace, often brings peace, and provides wisdom. No wonder the great psychologist, Karl Jung, had a sign on the door of his workplace that read: “Bidden or not, God is present here.” When one is listening, one is also hearing God.
Some guidelines for better listening are:
- Prepare for the listening session through prayer and contemplation
- Do not open the session with a preconceived solution.
- Suspend all judgment and expectations of the person
- Try entering into the person’s experience and let yourself feel his or her pain. Do not use platitudes like, “I feel your pain,” because you probably don’t. If you are listening well, you will begin to feel some of the pain.
- End the session with a prayer.
Psychologists and communication scholars have produced an ocean of material regarding listening skills. They are worth looking into. I believe that institutions such as religion, government, corporations, etc. should all have scholars that would educate and enlighten the members in their practices, policies, and changes relevant to strong communication skills and success for the institution and the people it serves. How often have you heard the hackneyed phrase that someone is ‘tone deaf,’ unable to grasp the problem so many are voicing in front of them. The person who is ‘tone deaf’ is often the leader or someone with power to facilitate a needed change.
Consider a bishop who would welcome groups with vested interests to discuss their interests, to wrestle with the doctrine that might be outdated. Consider a bishop who would call respected theologians and spiritual writers, even some who are not on the same page with him and ask them for enlightenment and guidance. Consider a political leader who would invite constituents to town hall meetings on certain issues and listen to them and not spew sulphuric acid on opponents to elevate one’s own power. In fact, to be a good listener, one has to remove the blinders one wears to stay focused on power because blinders prevent one from seeing those on the margins.
We all need to work on improving our listening skills. Perhaps it’s a good idea to take a listening inventory on our style of listening. Do I talk more than listen? Do I bring my personal solution to the table first rather than listen to what another has to offer? Jesus was often exacerbated by the poor listening skills of his followers, but I find the story of the sower and the seeds of faith as a stellar example of why we need to create a holy space as to listen better to the Word of God. This story is found in Mark 4:3-20 and Luke 8:5-15.
Read this Gospel message carefully and ask yourself how you can become a better listener to other people and to God’s word. Practice the challenge of holy listening using the guide provided here. This week let us enter this challenge knowing God is with us as we try to make listening a holy experience. It can be the first step in making a peaceful world.
(Sr. Yvonne is quoted from the article by Carol Glatz in The National Catholic Reporter, August 5-18, p.13. Kay Lindahl is quoted from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 27, 2022.)