“Is it just me, or do you feel bombarded by noise these days? Everyone seems to be talking, and as more and more voices join in, it seems that the volume keeps getting turned up and everyone is shouting. I’d like to offer something totally subversive in this moment of mayhem. What if, instead of trying to figure out the best thing to shout back, we did something counter-cultural? What if we decided to listen?”
So begins an article written by a woman named Susan Seay, sent along by an old friend with her Christmas card.
“One of the most difficult things for all of us to do is listen. When I was growing up, I remember my mom used to say, ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we talk.’”
But Seay goes on to point out that hearing is not the same as listening. Authentic conversations happen when sincere hearts pursue a genuine connection, she says.
“Listening is not a passive experience. It requires you to be fully engaged. The moment you come out from behind your fears and assumptions, you enter an opportunity to do more than hear, but truly listen. Hard hearts and narrow minds can’t appreciate the effort it takes to listen.”
At a time in history when many of us have come to define ourselves by what we’re against instead of what we’re for, Seay’s insights seem particularly important. She makes clear that a conversation without true listening is simply an exchange of words, and leaves both parties unchanged.
On the other hand, we all find it healing when someone truly listens to us - and also find it rare.
“But being a good listener,” she insists, “is 100% within your control in any conversation. You get to decide how you will show up.”
Near the end of her essay, Seay invites readers to practice improving their listening skills.
“This is your invitation to be a better listener at home with your kids. Be a better listener with your friends. Be a better listener with those whose stories are unfamiliar to your own. Keep listening until it becomes a habit. Then watch as your listening begins to reflect in your actions.
“Let your listening prompt new experiences based on what you’ve learned. Maybe that means picking up a book you would have never previously considered and deciding to learn about a subject you’ve never given time and attention to. Maybe you begin following social media accounts that make you feel more diverse. Maybe you intentionally pursue conversations you would have once avoided. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, or appearing uninformed keep you from stepping toward someone and their story. Make some mistakes, apologize, and then try again.”
The etymology of the word "listen" means “to honor.” Listening, especially with the intent to learn and perhaps change, is the way we honor each other’s wisdom, experience and pain.
Seay concludes: “Make the choice to be brave in your listening today - to do the intentional work of listening - and take the next step to honoring someone who may be holding an untold story.”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.