Even though listening to someone is a foundation for any loving relationship, the act of listening is surprisingly difficult. We could even say, like unconditional love, that paying full attention to another person is not a natural human behavior. Instead, due to our egos and their constant yammering, we usually pay more attention to ourselves than the people trying to tell us something.
When I was in theological school, I participated in training as a pastoral counselor at a large, urban hospital. There were six of us, supervised by two chaplains. Allocated a particular floor, we worked on our counseling skills through visits with the patients.
A recurring assignment was to write down verbatim transcripts of our conversations (with patient consent), which were then read and critiqued by the chaplains and other students. Why did you fail to hear the person say this? Why did you steer the conversation in that direction? The questions were challenging, the feedback direct, and class exchanges frequently became group counseling sessions.
At first, the assignments worried me because I had no idea how to remember a long conversation word for word. But my fear of being deficient made me pay attention to paying attention. I couldn’t let my mind wander or get diverted by a beeping machine. As a result, writing the dialogue wasn’t as hard as I expected. It’s surprising how well we hear when we’re motivated.
The problem, I found, is not lack of ability, but desire. Listening is tiring and demands focus, and we usually don’t invest the required energy. There are lots of reasons: it’s been a long day, the topic is boring, the other person is unbearable or has told the same story many times before. Basically, not hearing what we want to hear causes limits to our capacities and willingness. This is why attending to someone, at the most fundamental level, is a choice. If we give a person our full attention, we choose to do so. We find the energy and make the time. It is what makes listening an act of love.
Once I realized that I could write down a verbatim talk with a patient, my fear changed, because I saw how the critiquing sessions worked. It was like watching someone get their tooth extracted, while knowing you’re next. What didn’t I hear? How did I steer the dialogue? How did my needs get in the way? Inevitably, analyzing my conversations with patients became an analysis of myself. It couldn’t be avoided, since my ability to listen could only be interfered with by myself. Learning to know ourselves, about what we sound like, is also essential to listening.
Very often people mistake their voice for what others are saying. They hear what they want to hear. Messages are interpreted and conversations steered through the prism of our personal needs. True listening requires us to remove ourselves from the conversation.
One of the verbatim reports I submitted for critique was with a man dying of cancer. He was in the final stage; there were no more treatments. As a counselor in training, I thought it important for the man to discuss his impending death. It had to be on his mind; it’s what good counselors do. However, he continually deflected my questions and completely avoided the topic. At the end, I was frustrated. The patient was uncooperative and seemed to be in denial.
The subsequent group evaluation was fairly brutal. Why did I keep pushing death on the man, when he clearly did not want to discuss it? What was my agenda? Where was my empathy? One student remarked, “I’m surprised you didn’t kill him yourself.”
Like all important learning experiences tend to be in my life, I was bruised. But I also knew they were right. I didn’t really hear a word the man said. If I had been listening, instead of scheming for a particular outcome, I might have heard him open the door to a more fruitful conversation. I had no right to expect anything else; my needs got in the way.
Since listening, including the difficulties we encounter, is fundamental to any relationship, all of this is as pertinent to our relation to God as to people. The same needs that affect interpersonal relationships also affect spiritual ones. It’s no wonder that people hear God say so many different things or hear nothing at all. For those who seek to develop their spiritual life, to hear more clearly, dealing with those needs is essential.
In the end, as in all relationships, deepening a relation to the Creator is a choice, involving the investment of some time and energy. Paying half-attention or no attention gets correlative results. If we make the choice to attend, then we quickly run into interference from our self. We become impatient. We want answers to loaded questions. We get frustrated that God makes things so difficult. Subsequently, as with people, when we don’t hear what we want to hear, our willingness and energy decline, and we make the choice less often.
But the complaints are simply expressions of deeper motivations. A serious approach to spirituality inevitably leads us back to who we are underneath it all. Dealing with that person is where genuine listening starts and spirituality begins. That is the person the Creator wishes to know.
Listening for God is difficult. The silence and complexity can be discouraging. But those who seek persevere, attempting to remove ourselves from the conversation, waiting without expectation, for the One who speaks to us.
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