AWARD WINNER - To be a Neighbour Must Include Listening

This article won a 2017 award from the Australian Religious Press Association for the best social justice article. Social justice didn't cross my mind as I wrote the article. I was just thinking about loving the people God places around us and which listening skills help that to happen. This illustrates that social justice, love, and spiritual practices like listening are so closely intertwined.

by Lynne M. Baab

Many years ago I heard a sermon on the prodigal son. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ the teacher of the law asks Jesus (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asks, ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (verse 36).

On that Sunday long ago, the preacher said that it’s helpful to think of ‘neighbour’ in Jesus’ question as a verb rather than a noun. In other words, ‘Which of the three men in the story “neighboured” the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ To ‘neighbour’ someone is to act in a certain way. I want to argue that to ‘neighbour’ someone must include listening to them.

Why is listening a part of ‘neighbouring’? Good listening conveys so many things. In the seminars I conduct on listening, I always open with the question, ‘Why does listening matter?’ Participants usually come up with about twenty answers. Listening shows love and acceptance, they say. Listening helps people understand they are not alone in whatever issues they are facing. Listening helps people solve their own problems as they talk through an issue. Listening builds relationships. In fact, listening reflects the dance of the Triune God where each of the three Persons of the Trinity lives in love and deep communication with each other.

Listening skills – which can be learned – include those small indicators that we are listening, ‘hmmm’ or ‘yes’ or ‘I see.’ Listening skills include body language and facial expressions that indicate we are paying attention. Other key skills include learning to ask open-ended questions and growing in our ability to reflect back to the person what we think they have said.

All listening skills depend on one behaviour. We must stop talking in order to listen. In this article I want to write about some of the inner forces that make it hard for us to stop talking.

1. People are different and their difference makes me feel tense.

Imagine that you have a new co-worker. This new person wears a headscarf, so you wonder if she is a Muslim. Imagine that you’ve never actually had a conversation with a Muslim before. What do you say? What do you ask? What do you feel?

Use your imagination a bit more. Imagine that last week you were talking with a family member who expressed his conviction that Muslims are trying to take over the world. At the time, you disagreed with him, but now, as you want to have a conversation with the new co-worker, your family member’s words come back to you, and you begin to feel tense about what you will say.

All of us feel some degree of tension in conversations with people who are different than we are. Perhaps you’ve had lots of interesting conversations with Muslims, but maybe you get tense when you talk with people who have different political beliefs than you do. Or maybe your new colleague is a vegetarian and you are intimidated by people who don’t eat meat.

When Jesus challenges us to ‘neighbour’ the people around us, he is asking us to make a difficult move. He is asking us to engage with people with whom we feel uneasy, perhaps because of their religious or political beliefs or their convictions about things that matter to us. Jesus is asking us to engage with interest and respect. For many of us, our knee-jerk response when we feel uneasy is to fill the air with our own words because we worry about what the other person might say that would make us uneasy. Setting aside that uneasiness so we can listen is a key listening challenge.

2. People say things that I don’t know how to respond to.

Imagine your new co-worker not only wears a scarf, but she tells you about the recent death of her father. Imagine you are uncomfortable talking about death, so her story arouses your sense of insecurity about what to say when people are grieving. The next time you see her, you don’t ask any questions about her father or the funeral or how her family members are coping. Instead, you talk about the project you’re working on together. You’re afraid she’ll talk about her grief and then you won’t know what to say.

All of us, even the best listeners, find ourselves wondering from time to time about what’s the best thing to say. The challenge is to learn to set aside our anxiety about what to say so we can make space in the conversation for whatever the other person wants to talk about. If we can set aside that anxiety, we won’t be afraid to let people talk about what matters to them. We will be open to them and their concerns, as a good neighbour would be. Often no response at all is necessary, and with time we can learn to feel comfortable with silence in conversations. Learning to set aside our anxiety about what we’re going to say next is a key listening skill.

3. I’m in a hurry.

Another key listening skill is knowing how to cut off the flow of words gracefully. When we encounter someone in the supermarket and they start a long story, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, ‘I can’t talk now. I’m so sorry, but I’ve got an appointment.’ We must not ever make listening such an absolute value that our lives become out of control. Sometimes there simply isn’t time to listen well.

However, it’s worth examining our lives a bit. How long has it been since you’ve listened to a story from someone who is upset about something or worried or discouraged or angry? How long has it been since you have felt uncomfortable in a conversation? If it’s been weeks or months, then it’s probably time to spend some effort engaging with someone who’s a bit different than you are or who is experiencing things that make you uneasy. Jesus calls us to ‘neighbour’ the people around us, and if we are always rushing off to the next appointment and never listening, then we are probably missing his call.

Just about all of us in this busy world have a long to-do list. That list can get in the way of listening. We need to ask God’s help to know when to focus on the list and when to set the list aside for ten or thirty or ninety minutes to listen to someone.

4. I’m in the habit of talking because it’s less effort than listening.

Let’s be honest. Active, engaged listening is quite tiring. For many people, talking is less demanding than listening. Let’s be honest again. We simply don’t have the time and energy to listen carefully all day long. But in order to build bridges with people who are different than we are, in order to ‘neighbour’ people around us, we have to listen attentively sometimes. And, for those of us who are talkative, that means letting go of our love of talking for a period of time.

5. I have no idea how to show love while listening because it wasn’t modeled to me.

When I did my interviews for my book The Power of Listening, several of my interviewees talked about people in their congregations who had never been listened to and simply had no model for good listening. If you’re one of those people, I have three suggestions:

Read the Gospels. Jesus was a champion listener. Watch for the ways he paid close attention to the people he interacted with. He frequently spoke up and he frequently listened. He knew how to do both, and he is a great model.

Secondly, watch the pattern of the conversations in your life. Pay attention to conversations when you’re with people you like to be with. In what ways do they listen to you? Also, pay attention to the pattern of conversation with people who are hard to be with. What are their listening habits? I have learned so much from paying attention to the listening practices of people in my life, both good and bad.

Thirdly, consider finding a spiritual director. Again, watch the pattern of listening on the part of your spiritual director and you will learn a lot.

6. I’ll never show perfect empathy so I don’t want to try.

Communication scholars view empathy as the highest listening skill. Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.[1]

Empathy is beautiful to experience. It is also very hard to sustain. In fact, no one can empathise perfectly. Sometimes we are tempted not to try because it is so challenging.

Perhaps you’ll find it encouraging to know that the people in my life who are the very best listeners have expressed to me how often they feel they fail as listeners. They are very aware that their empathy is only partial and that sometimes they simply talk too much or fail to perceive what another person is trying to say.

But they keep trying. They constantly work at listening better. They intentionally give feedback through their facial expression, body language and short words. They try to ask good questions. They pay attention to what the other person is saying and try to reflect back in order to be sure they have comprehended what was said. And they work at paying attention to those times that they are tempted to talk and talk. They know that the urge to fill the air with their own words comes from some kind of inner anxiety that must be acknowledged before it can be set aside.

An example

I interviewed the minister of a culturally diverse congregation in Auckland. He said that some of the members of his congregation who are New Zealanders of European heritage have expressed their uneasiness in conversations with Asians in the congregation. He has asked them, ‘What’s the issue?’

One woman responded, ‘Well, if I talk to an Asian I don’t know what to say. If I talk to a European, I might be able to say, “Oh, you went to school in Wellington!” I can kind of imagine that because it would be like me going to school in Auckland. But if you said you went to school in Kuala Lumpur – blank.’

The minister said he found himself thinking, ‘You’re an intelligent person, so why don’t you just ask the next question: “What was it like going to school in Kuala Lumpur?”’

To ‘neighbour’ the people God has put in our lives who come from very different backgrounds than we do, or who believe very different things than we do, requires using a variety of listening skills. One of those skills is asking simple and appropriate questions like, ‘What was it like going to school in Kuala Lumpur?’ Asking good questions and being willing to listen to the answer requires something else first: we must stop talking. Many people talk rather than listen because it’s easier for so many reasons. Exploring those reasons and learning to set them aside from time to time helps us show love to the people God is bringing to us as neighbours.

Watch for the ways you feel loved in conversations. Watch for the way people in your life ‘neighbour’ you as they listen to you. Then go and do likewise. You’ll learn so much from people who are different than you are, and you’ll enter into Jesus’ love for you and for the people around you.

Resources on listening:

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

Blog posts on listening

More articles on listening:

Growing in loving listening            
Listening past the noise          
Letting go of agendas so we can listening to God and others                  

To access my other books, look here

(Published in Refresh Journal of Christian Spirituality, Summer 2016.)

[1] Kathleen S. Verderber and Rudolph F. Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211.