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Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn

Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn

“Huh?” “What did you say?” “What?”

When we want to make fun of our dad, these are the words that we use. While it may not be funny that my father is hard of hearing, it is pretty humorous that sometimes when my mom and dad are talking, it’s a constant back-and-forth of these words. “Huh?” “What?” “I didn’t catch that.”

And it’s not that my father is the only one with a problem. Ask my wife and she would say that half the time I don’t hear her as well. But my problem is a different one. Despite punk shows in high school, loud music in my Beats earphones, and some time spent working on cars in an assembly line, my hearing is still top notch. The reason I say, “Huh?” half the time is that I too often find myself distracted by too many things on my mind, rather than being present in the conversation at hand.

I’m not alone. Few of us know the art of listening—active, engaged, compassionate listening that helps us understand, comprehend, and respond appropriately to what we hear from others and the world around us. Far too often, we are more concerned with our communication skills, voicing our opinions, or listening to our own stations to the effect of tuning out everyone else.

Not only does this stifle our own ability to develop fresh insights and come across new ideas that could fuel our own growth, but this posture robs us of the opportunity to really know and respond to the people we encounter, interact with, and love in our lives. What we may not realize is that in our zeal to talk, our lack of listening is hurting us and others.

Indeed, before we can do anything for others, we must learn to listen and listen to learn. Dietrich Bonhoeffer underlines this point with his words, “those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally will no longer even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here.”

The principal step in learning to listen to others so that we can truly engage with them, is to get over ourselves. First, we have to learn to simply shut our mouths. I often joke that the first step in helping others is to shut up. As we close our mouths we can open our ears to hear, to listen and learn from those around us.

However, to truly listen and receive what is being told to us, we may also need to silence our own presuppositions. A presupposition is an assumed idea we hold about the world or other people. Our presuppositions often form our opinions and shape our lines of thought before we even interact with others. This is hurting our ability to help.

Instead, we might do well to silence our assumptions and pre-judgement, and instead wade into conversations, read the news, or listen to others’ stories with a respectful, open ear. This may prove more difficult than we imagine. The world, and the people in it, have a wide variety of experiences, opinions, and needs. Some of these might challenge our own worldviews, stories, or carefully crafted concepts about life. That’s okay. The point of our conversations is not necessarily to convert or coerce others to conform to our way of seeing things. Instead, the point is a relationship of mutuality and living connection.

Perhaps it would help for us to think of our listening—in a one-on-one conversation, listening to the news, or scanning our social media feeds—as a means by which we can step beyond our limited notions of the world and be confronted with the perspective of others so that both of us might be transformed in the process.

For an example of how to do this, I like to turn to Jesus when he spoke to the Samaritan woman as it is recorded in the writings of his beloved follower John. In this narrative, Jesus has traveled to “the other side of the tracks,” the northern territories of Samaria. In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans and the Jews—Jesus’ tribe—were opposed to each other ethnically, religiously, and politically. They weren’t supposed to get along.

But in the fourth chapter of John’s recording of Jesus’ life, we find Jesus sitting with a Samaritan woman of ill repute at a well in the middle of the day. Instead of telling her to go away, to leave him alone, or opening up on her with a tirade of self-righteous sermonizing, Jesus instead asks questions, gets to know her, and listens to her tell her story.

If you happen to have one of those Bibles that highlights Jesus’ words in red text, the first thing you might notice in this section is that there isn’t much of it. The Samaritan woman does most of the talking. Jesus does most of the listening. In the end, the woman’s life is transformed and Jesus’ ministry is extended to places beyond what even his followers could have imagined.

He didn’t have to do it. He could’ve cut off the conversation or just told her what he already knew. Instead, he listened. He learned. And life was transformed in the process.

Our world is one of poignant pain, serious suffering, and intense injustice. We must open our ears to hear it in the lives of the people we know and love, the people we encounter at the local pub, or in the news we see online. We must not close ourselves off because of our own assumptions or prejudices, or speak over others with our own opinions or experiences.

If we desire to live in this world in such a way that we see it transformed for the better, we might instead try to close our mouths, and open our ears to listen and learn so that we might know how best to serve, how best to change, and how best to help our fellow humans.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Religion nerd, rugby fan, runner, foodie, traveler, beer-ista. Ken gets to do a lot of these things as a religion scholar, pastor, and popular writer and speaker working out of universities, cafés, communities, and local pubs across the U.S.

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