We Are About: Compassionate Listening

Do you believe listening can change the world? Because I do.

I know this is possible because I’ve experienced its change-making power inside my soul. I’ve also witnessed the effects of true listening on the lives of others.

Not only that, but I’ve seen how one soul changed by the power of listening produces a multiplication effect: we listen, because we’ve been listened to. The more we listen, the more we invite others to do the same, and slowly the whole of humanity gets lifted up.

That’s why one entry in the JTN manifesto declares that we are about:

Compassionate listening that heals, empowers, and ultimately creates a more loving human family.

You may wonder, what exactly is compassionate listening?

Compassionate listening is the act of “listening and feeling with.”

It is the act of entering as fully into another person’s experience as humanly possible, simply with the intent to understand.

Not with the intent to demonstrate how much we understand.

Not with the intent to share our own related experience.

Not with the intent to give advice.

Not even with the intent to heal, empower, or better the world.

Simply to know them.

It means being fully present to another person. Putting aside our own ego. Laying down our own desire to speak and be listened to. Casting aside our assumptions about the other person and the experiences they’re relating to us.

It means holding open the possibility that another person’s thoughts and feelings and reactions could be — and almost certainly are — different than our own would be, simply because the whole of their life experience carries different associations and memories and meanings than ours does.

Compassionate listening accords another person the dignity of their own life, story, experiences, and humanity. It is a truly human act. And it has the power to change the world, one listened-to soul at a time.

Do you believe in this? How do you embody and/or experience this kind of listening in your own life?

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14 responses to “We Are About: Compassionate Listening

  1. I have to listen and remember not to empathize, or at least not to much. When I do that I am instantly casting my emotions and way into the mix and the listening gets clouded by my experiences. I have to remember that I am there for them to listen, sometimes ask a question or two and the shut my mouth and open my ears.

    It is hard because I am trained in the conventional pastoral manner, and I aspire to be a spiritual director in/through that calling as well. Both have many, many tie in’s, but if I go at it from a Pastor’s angle all the time then I must, at least in the mind of whom I am with, find a solution and a bible verse to go with it. It does not leave much room for mystery, and the mystery is where it is at.

    I love plumbing the depths with a person as you know. My favorite place is Raven’s Nest coffee with a fellow traveler and a good mug of coffee going into the depths.

    • Yes, I do know you to be someone who enjoys plumbing the depths with people, Carl! It’s something I enjoy about the way God shows up through you for others.

      It’s interesting what you shared about the different hats of listener, pastor, and/or spiritual director. In my spiritual direction training, we often have conversations about the difference between psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, and spiritual direction. You’re right … one thing that comes up a lot is that people going for pastoral counseling are often expecting (or at least receiving, if not expecting) a biblical response to their situation, almost like, “What would God have me do?”

      That question is asked in spiritual direction, too, but the response is so difference. In that place, there is not the emphasis on finding the answer in the Bible or seeking guidance from another, but listening together to the Holy Spirit, asking God how he is moving, and having a conversation with God about our response to that movement.

      I like, too, your distinction between listening and empathy. Someone was just sharing with me how confusing it can be to tell someone “I understand” … then it becomes a question of whether I really understood them, or whether I understood them through my own filter, or whether I was just trying hard to have them know I understood. Why does that matter?

      I think most of the time people don’t care so much that we share a kindred knowing of their experience because it relates to our own … but simply that we heard them share what they needed to share and could feel with them what that was like for them.

      • Here is a prime example of why one needs to clarify which hat sometimes. . Today I was sitting at lunch with a man who is new to my area. He found out I was a pastor and he just gushed open, I mean REALLY opened up. It was a completely awesome time. I felt privileged to listen as he expounded. I was a full 20 minutes late from lunch, as was he. However, after he was done opening up I had my spiritual director hat on. I did not give advise, I asked a few questions, and listened some more. His response, “Fix me damn it”, just that bluntly put me on my toes.

        He is probably early 50′s in age. He is a modern, our generation post modern. Very different approaches to the very same situations.

        I just have to remember humility and grace in abundance, humility and grace in all things.

        • What a story, and what an opportunity to listen! Hearing his cry to be fixed makes me ache for the pain he must be feeling. You raise an interesting point about the generational differences … I wonder, though, if there is an across-the-board need in every human soul for a certain kind of listening that frees people from receiving answers and fixes from fellow humans in order to open their ears to God’s words to them?

  2. This doesn’t answer your question, but when I read this I started wondering: if listening is compassionate, what is sharing? Could it be said that true sharing is also compassionate, because you’re inviting someone into yourself, giving them the option of compassion? I’m not sure. At the same time, I’m convinced that being unbalanced (all listening or all sharing) will not change the world, but living out a balance in that area just might.

    • What a great question, Sarah.

      My thoughts on what you’ve asked here about sharing kind of flow into my thoughts on what you said about the imbalance of all-sharing or all-listening.

      I started thinking about how God is able to be fully compassionate toward us, taking in all that we share (and even don’t share — he knows more than we know or even can verbalize about our experiences!) … but he’s also a God who shares of himself. We know what God thinks about stuff because he verbalizes. He chooses to be known.

      This reminds me of something I was realizing about six months ago … the fact that Jesus was the same way. His love for people did not mean he became hidden … he put himself out there, chose to be known, even though he knew people would never fully know him or get what he was about while he walked this earth.

      I find that amazing. As someone who is more inclined to be all-listening with others (sharing is hard for me), seeing the example of Jesus choosing to be known reminds me that all-listening isn’t enough, just like you’ve said here.

  3. I think compassionate listening can make a huge impact on people’s lives. Everyone enjoys being listened to and understood. As you said, I think people are likely to pass on this compassionate listening when they experience it for themselves from another person.

    You’ve inspired me to make more of an effort to listen to understand – not fix, give advice, or share my own input.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Jenni! You’re so welcome here! I’m really glad to hear that this post has inspired you to be more intentional with your listening. I’d love to hear how that greater exercise of listening makes its way into your life, as you have a chance to demonstrate a compassionate, listening ear to those around you.

  4. I’m forced to admit that I’m not nearly as good at this as I should be or want to be. I have a lot of opportunity to grow in this area.

    While it’s not my intention to filter someone else’s voice and and experience through my own lens, I automatically do. Maybe I don’t vocalize it, maybe I don’t interrupt … but I do interrupt the flow of listening when I do this.

    I know so many times, I just want to be heard. I’m not looking for a fix or even a direction or even for someone to relate to what I’m experiencing … I just want to be heard. I know that others want and need the same.

    I want to be better at this: to ask more questions, to see to understand, to focus as entirely as possible on the other.

    • I love the way you’ve put that, friend: an opportunity to grow in this area. What a positive way to look at it!

      That desire to be truly heard runs so deep, isn’t it? I also find the ability to be truly heard is quite rare. That’s one reason I think it can be so remarkably world-changing … we long to receive this, yet we so often don’t. Once it starts happening, it can be so transformative in such a dramatic way.

      I love seeing the way you’re leaning into this, asking of yourself how to be more present to others as you listen, but also moving toward that from a place of deep knowing yourself about the value of being met in a soul-place like that.

      Love you.

  5. I am just now getting over here. I am wondering where I have been since you posted this 2 days ago. I am married to the math lab, and I want a divorce….pronto.

    WOW! WOW! WOW! As always Christianne, you never fail to amaze me. This blog literally blew me away. It is simplistically profound. And sometimes those are the deepest revelations.

    I know without a doubt that you live out this blog in your life. I am one such person that has been forever impacted by your listening/ “hearing” heart. Listening and hearing are worlds apart sometimes. I know when I talk to you- you hear me. I think that is a deliberate act of love that we shower upon those around us.

    I have learned many things from you- even though we are miles apart. The greatest lesson (if I were forced to choose one) would be that you have taught me to listen. It is like the book of John (what you describe here)- We love God because He first loved us.

    There is so much in this blog, but one thing that struck me the most (because I need to develop it), is that we listen not to solve a problem or sweep in to save the day. We listen for totally unselfish motive……that is powerful. I have two mouths and one ear some days. Or just 3 jacked up/deformed mouths and no ears at all other days.

    I have a long way to go in developing listening skills. If I ever become a counselor you will be the example of the person that I learned how to listen from. I want to sit with this post. Right now, my life (as you know) is chaotic, but this is something I like to come back to because it is so rich. It is like biting into a piece of double chocolate cake smothered in chocolate chip ice cream…….with whipped cream and a cherry on top. :)

    I am not going back to edit this comment so if I said something crazy….just ignore me.

    • I like the way you take things in, Tammy, and really savor them so they go down deep.

      Yes, I am always struck by that unselfish motive you mention that true listening really is … it’s like giving someone the dignity of their own life, instead of trying to manage it for them. I really is a matter of respect.

      I’m so glad I get to bend my ear into your life on a regular basis. You are one of my favorite people to know. Love you, friend.

  6. I have been told I am a very good listener. I think because I so deeply despise being interrupted, I am always very aware of how important it is I simply listen when someone I love and care for needs to talk. I know most of the time things can’t be fixed, and I know how important it is to allow for stretches of silence when the other person can figure out how to say what he or she is trying to say. I try to create that space…that space of not having to rush through something.

    • Just hearing you say that line of creating “that space of not having to rush through something” makes me breathe so much more freely. It’s such a gift that you offer that open, unhurried space to others. I have no doubt it’s a gift others cherish from you.

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