Letting Go of Agendas so We Can Listen to God and to Others

by Lynne M. Baab, author of Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life

(published in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality, Summer 2015)

Eleven years ago our son came to us asking advice about whether we thought he should marry his girlfriend of three years. They were both 23, and he felt that was too young to get married. My husband and I agreed with that assessment, but we also agreed with him that this lovely young woman was just about the best thing that had ever happened to him.

After our son talked through the pros and cons of getting married, I said: “Yes, you’re both too young to get married, and yes, she’s an absolutely wonderful person. You have a tough decision to make.” For the first time as a parent, I genuinely did not have an opinion about what he should do. Previously, I struggled and prayed about whether or not to voice my opinion. This time, I truly didn’t know what he should do.

I’ve looked back on that moment many times. The quality of my listening changed when I realized I genuinely didn’t have an opinion, and that I genuinely wanted to support him in whatever he decided to do. Yes, I would pray for guidance for him, but it was his (and her) big decision to make, not mine.

In the past three years I’ve been researching, teaching, speaking and writing about listening. I have come to believe that many of the same listening skills and listening obstacles apply both to listening to people and listening to God. One of the biggest obstacles comes from having an agenda while listening.

That agenda might be our certainty that we know what another person should do or believe, which I so frequently experienced as a mother of teenagers. My kids would talk about something they wanted to do, and I could see so clearly it wasn’t a good idea, and my struggle in the conversation was to find wisdom. What was the best way to influence them?

The Kinds of Agendas that Block our Listening to People

Cognitive ideas in conversations – such as being sure that we’re right about something or wondering how to counter someone’s words – might block listening because those thoughts function as a kind of agenda. Imagine you have a friend who has been learning Buddhist meditation, and you’re having a conversation with that friend about her experience. You are adamantly convinced that Buddhist meditation will never meet her needs in the way that Jesus Christ would. As you listen to her talk, you are watching for opportunities to say something about Jesus. Or perhaps you want to say something about Jesus, but you feel woefully ill equipped to counter what she’s saying about her Buddhist practice.

A part of you wants to hear her story. How did she get involved in this new practice? What factors in her life led her here? What has she learned? But another part of you is deeply concerned about her and how you will respond to her. That inner tension or anxiety that you feel while listening to her may very well block your ability to listen carefully. Our desire to relieve our own anxiety or tension while listening functions as another kind of agenda that can block listening.

Have you ever been at a family meal when someone starts talking intensely about something? The intensity in their voice makes some of the people sitting around the table uncomfortable, and pretty soon someone jumps up and says, “Let’s get those dishes done!” Intensity can make us feel uncomfortable, and one way we manage our discomfort is to shut down the conversation. Our agenda in that instance is managing our own discomfort.

Sometimes in conversations we are tense or anxious because of our awareness of time. Maybe we have an appointment coming up and we need to get going. How will we extricate ourselves from the conversation in time? Maybe it’s a day with a long to-do list, and spending time talking to someone just wasn’t on the list. That list spinning around our mind makes us tense, and our agenda shifts from caring for the other person to relieving our own anxiety.

I keep coming back to that instance with my son. “You have a big decision to make,” I said to him. I could see so clearly it was his decision, not mine. For some unknown and wonderful reason, I didn’t feel anxious about the fact that I didn’t know what he should do. He was intensely concerned about his decision, but in that one moment, blessed by God, his intensity didn’t bother me and make me want to change the subject or shut down the conversation. I was able to be present to him, let him talk through the pros and cons, and leave the decision in his and his girlfriend’s hands.

What made me able to listen well to him? For that brief moment, I didn’t have an agenda for his life, I knew the decision was his to make, and I knew his life ultimately belonged to God and not to me. In addition, for that brief moment, I didn’t feel tension or anxiety about what I should think or say about this situations, so I didn’t get sidetracked by my need to relieve my own inner turmoil. There was an element of knowing I wasn’t responsible for his life and that I could trust God in the moment, and that peace and trust was a true gift from God. I’ve been thinking ever since then about how to replicate that peace and trust in other conversations.

The Kind of Agendas that Block Listening to God

Very similar agendas can block our listening to God. Some of them are cognitive, related to what we believe or think about something. “I shouldn’t be struggling with this.” “What’s wrong with me that this situation is bugging me so much?” “What kind of a person would have this issue in their life?” These inner thoughts, focused on judgment and self-criticism, keep our minds occupied when we could be listening to God.

Tension and anxiety can also block listening to God, just like they block listening to people. “Oh my gosh, what will happen? How will I cope? This is awful! Help me, God.” We can see throughout the psalms that the people of God have always brought their pain, terror, frustration and sorrow to God, and praying in the midst of hard times is an essential part of knowing and loving God. However, I can experience within myself the difference between the anxiety – even terror – that blocks listening to God and the anxiety that I leave in God’s hands because my life belongs to God.

“You have a big decision to make,” I said to my son. I was curious what he would decide. Perhaps a parallel to that perspective is the moment when I say to God, “I have a big decision to make. I’m curious how you will guide me. I want to let go of the anxiety that sometimes overwhelms me when I think about it. I want to trust you in it.”

Choosing an attitude of curiosity and choosing to set aside anxiety as much as we can opens us up to listening, whether we are listening to God or listening to others. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist says (Psalm 46:10). I always thought the psalmist was referring to sitting still, but now I believe at least part of the stillness necessary to hearing God involves stilling the inner swirling thoughts. Being still means to acknowledge that we have a horrible tendency to emphasise our own agendas and to be overwhelmed by the drive to soothe our own anxieties.

I have always found it easier to engage in listening while praying if I’m doing something rhythmical as well: walking, swimming or playing the piano. I wonder if the rhythm quiets my anxious thoughts to some extent, which then enables me to be still and know that God is God, even though I’m not physically still. It’s worth spending some time pondering the places in your life where you most easily experience the stilling of your emotions and agendas. Gardening, perhaps? Hiking? Walking on a beach?

Letting Go

I’ve been arguing that in order to grow in our ability to listen to God and to people, we need to learn to let go of our agendas. Those agendas might be our certainty that we’re right or our need to relieve the anxiety we feel in some conversations. I can see clearly from my own experience that when I am able to set aside those agendas, I am better able to listen and better able to grow in my listening skills.

The converse is also true. I have observed that practicing listening skills helps me let go of all sorts of expectations of myself and others. Consciously working on listening well helps me set aside many forms of certainty, anxiety and tension. Listening skills fuel letting go of my agendas, and letting go of my agendas fuels listening skills.

Why should we bother to set aside our agendas while listening? This “letting go” related to good listening helps us draw near to the people in our lives. We are more able to accept people as they are and more able to support them in their journey. We are more honest when we do speak up, because we are more in touch with what’s going on inside us. When we practice setting aside our own agendas, we are also more able to hear God’s voice.

A post-script: Ten years ago, our son married that wonderful young woman. She continues to be a gift to him. A few months ago, they gave us our first grandchild, a beautiful little girl. Now I have to grow in my ability to let go of my agendas regarding my granddaughter!

Questions for Reflection, Journaling or Discussion:

Have you had moments in conversations where you have seen clearly that your conversation partner has a difficult decision to make, but you didn’t have an opinion of what they should decide? In what ways did that free you to listen well?

Do you think it’s possible to listen well even when you strongly disagree with what the other person is talking about? What might that look like for you?

Where are the places in your life where you have experienced the stilling of your emotions and agendas? In what ways do those places open you up to God and to hearing God’s voice? What are the obstacles to going to those places often?

(Need a boost in challenging times? Do you find it hard to navigate both sadness and gratitude? Check out my book, Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, which encourages us to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. It guides us into experiencing both the brokenness and abundance of God's world with authenticity and hope, drawing on the Psalms, Jesus, Paul, and personal experience. It is available for kindle and in paperback, 80 pages. To see my other books and Bible study guides, look here.)

Resources on listening:

My book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry

Blog posts on listening

More articles on listening:

To be a neighbor must include listening
Listening past the Noise
Spiritual Practice: Growing in Loving Conversation