I’m just not listening

My wife has from time to time accused me of not listening, with the simple question: “What did I just say?” Whereupon I have immediately repeated, word for word, her last relevant sentences. She finds this irritating. But of course I have not been listening because my mind has been engaged elsewhere – thinking about my next column, perhaps. What I have used is my acoustic memory, which retains for a few seconds material to which I have not consciously adverted.
I have heard, but I have not listened. And in this column I want to write a little about the difference. This is not a trivial subject. I would argue that our quality of listening is an essential virtue. Without it, our ability to love our neighbour as ourselves is no more than a self-serving delusion.
Imagine, as an example, that you have a friend who is explaining to you why she is sending her child to a non-Catholic school, when a good Catholic school is reasonably available. Further, imagine that you are instinctively and quite definitely opposed to the idea. You may find that your brain is multitasking. One part is taking in what she says, the other is judging what she says and taking every reasonable opportunity to put forward counter arguments.
Most conversations, even about minor matters, occur like this. It is a verbal tennis match in which you watch your opponent’s shots with great care, and position yourself to make the next return.
How does this contrast with proper listening? Here, your full attention is focused on what your friend is saying, and the feelings which accompany her words. You are trying to understand why she is making this choice, but seeing it from her perspective. While she is speaking you are making no reply other than occasionally to confirm that you have understood what she is saying and why. You are listening with full attention to her and not to yourself.
What has happened to you as a result of listening? You may not have changed your mind about the issue one jot, but you now have some insight, some understanding of why she takes this view. If you would wish her to change her mind, at least you know what her mind is, and the degree of care she has taken in arriving at that decision.
What has happened to her? The very process of being able to tell her story has helped her to look at it. She may even begin to wonder, at least in the back of her mind, whether her decision is altogether correct, once she has heard herself put it into words. And when you have occasionally confirmed your understanding she has been given a chance to correct or refine what she has said.
What has happened to both of you? There is an increase in mutual trust. For her, because she has been listened to, accepted and not judged. For you, because of your greater understanding. And, above all, your listening has earned you the right to a mutual exploration of her ideas.
This exploration is not a series of counter arguments but helping her to look more closely at her views, and to take into account issues, both emotional and factual, which she may not have considered fully. It is axiomatic, and supported by good studies, that people rarely change their minds through confrontational argument. They can only be midwived towards discovering new views for themselves. The outcome is not your responsibility. It is enough if her eventual decision, whatever it is, is freer and better informed than it would have been without your help.
The principles I have described cover a range – from someone considering abortion to a child complaining about being bored at school. It applies to boss and employee, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend, doctor and patient, trade union and management. It applies to us listening to the teaching Church, and the teaching Church listening to us. A goodly proportion of conflicts at the personal, social and international level would be solved if only people would learn and practise good listening.
But don’t fool yourself. Good listening is hard to do; it runs against our natural grain, which draws us towards defending our principles and interests. Instinctively we are pulled towards expressing our own opinions and prevailing over the opinions of others. Listening is very much a discipline at which our skills improve with practice. And it is all to easy to slip back into our old bad habits unless we conscientiously watch ourselves. I have certainly found it so.
In my days as a marriage counsellor I found that simply teaching a husband and wife to listen to each other was my major constructive activity. But it does not just operate at such a dramatic level; it is needed whenever someone wants to tell us something which is important to them. And that gives us an opportunity to put in some practice.
The next time someone wants you to listen – unless you are a hermit it will happen today or tomorrow – try good listening as I have described it. You may be surprised at the outcome. So will the speaker, for it is likely that this will be their first experience of someone really listening to them.
Do you want, and sometimes badly need, to be listened to? If you do, you will understand why good listening is, as I write above, essential to loving your neighbour as yourself. It may not be identified as a specific virtue in any formal listing. But it’s there.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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3 Responses to I’m just not listening

  1. st.joseph says:

    How many times as parents have we said to our children’are you listening to me’I have always as most parents will do -try to listen to them! Sometimes that can be a fault of some . I have always believed that to be shown respect from your children, one must show it to them first , if we do not give the example,they will only do as we do.But I do understand that this can be very agrivating when you sometimes find yourself speaking ‘to the wall’.
    When I see parents shouting ,screaming and using bad language at their children in the street I often wonder what kind of adults they will grow into. Do we have this kind of society where people do not listen as you rightly say Quentin.
    There is also the case of maybe listening and not hearing,or not understanding. Understanding is a Gift of The Holy Spirit which we receive from our Baptism and Confirmation (I think without looking it up) someone correct me if I am wrong ),and the many Graces we receive on the way Listening to the Word of God and not listening is another example, A good ‘homily’can be a God send. I think I can quote something from the Bible that our Lord said, not being a Bible scholar, I hope I dont take it out of context.quote’ he who hears you Hears Me.and ‘I know My sheep and they know Me’I believe only through ‘listening ‘to the Word will we know the message of Jesus. I dont mean to be presumptious here as I do know that there are many non-christians living the Word of God in there lives, and many christians who are not. I think it is our duty as christians to inform non-christians that they ‘are speaking ‘on behalf of The Lord when they do speak for Him even if they dont know it.Then they might like to get to know Him as a Friend.
    I would like some of our Bishops to listen to some of the laity, even if they misunderstand our welfare for the Church. It has been said that we are a ‘Listening Church’ perhaps a good example could be shown on their part.

  2. Horace says:

    I well remember the requirement to LISTEN to patients being continually emphaised by my friend and mentor Dr Nat Blau.

    Quentin’s list :- “It applies to boss and employee, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend, doctor and patient, trade union and management” contains one notable omission; “Confessor and Penitent” (or whatever is the appropriate terminology in these post-concilar times).

    Confession (reconciliation) should not simply be the recitation of a list of “sins” to a passively listening priest. No wonder the practice of weekly, even monthly, confession has almost disappeared.

    Surely a major element in the charism exhibited by such priests as John Vianney and Padre Pio was precisely the ability to LISTEN – to discern and draw out what was really troubling those who came to them.

  3. Horace, as you will know, but others may not, experiments designed to discover the benefits of placebos versus active ingredients have often shown that the degree of care and relationship with the patient (‘bedside manner’ if you like) can improve results to a marked degree. And this is not illusion, actual therapeutic change can be observed.
    st joseph, your contribution made me think of the value of listening to oneself in prayer and decision making. I mean listening to one’s real self – having dropped all excuses and rationalisations. This is where, for me, the Holy Spirit comes into action. He/she doesn’t do my thinking for me, but makes it possible for me to think well.

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