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Listening Past the Noise

Saturday August 9 2014

Listening Past the Noise

I have a new colleague in my department, and we're having our first one-on-one conversation. I ask him the normal questions: Where are you from? Where did you study? Tell me about your family. What are your interests?

I'm carefully watching my inner thoughts and feelings as he talks. I'm watching for a moment of tension or discomfort.

Maybe he'll tell me he's a bit of a political activist and I'll find out his political convictions are quite different from mine. Maybe he'll tell me he practices a religion other than mine.

And if either of these happen, I'll wonder if I'm conveying that I approve of his beliefs and convictions because I'm trying to listen well. That would make me tense. And I'll probably feel uneasy wondering how to respond to his expression of values different from my own.

Watching for that inner tension as I listen is a new practice for me. It comes out of research I conducted a couple of years ago. I interviewed 63 people about the role of listening in congregations, and I tacked on a question about obstacles to listening at the end of the interviews.

To my surprise, most of my interviewees were the most passionate as they described obstacles when listening.

Some of those obstacles come from outside us, such as noisy rooms, a soft-spoken conversation partner or someone who talks really fast. But many more obstacles come from within.

Quite a few of my interviewees used the term ''inner noise'' to describe the emotions and thoughts that make us want to stop listening, perhaps by changing the subject or getting up to do something.

I've already described two kinds of inner noise: wondering if by listening to someone I disagree with, I'm giving tacit approval to their point of view, and worrying I won't know how to respond appropriately.

My interviewees also talked about other forms of inner noise, including the tyranny of the ''to-do'' list floating around in our mind and a feeling of time pressure that makes it hard to be present with people we're talking to.

(To find out what I learned about dealing with inner noise, read the entire article here. Originally published in the Otago Daily Times, 9 August, 2014.)