Learning to Listen

English: The Active Listening Chart shows the ...

I remember the first time I realized I wanted to tell my stories, got angry and hurt inside when people wouldn’t listen, but wasn’t willing to listen to the stories of others.

Was that really me? Was I really that self-absorbed? That indulgent?

Did I think my stories were better? More interesting? Happened in more exotic locations?

The why was less important than the what – and the what was clear: I didn’t know how to really listen. I needed to learn, learn to listen to the stories of others. Give them the privilege and honor of recognizing their stories and their world as important. Listen to their stories, the narratives of their lives.

Ruth Van Reken, adult TCK and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds is the person who articulated for me the need for the third culture kid to learn to listen. I was at a conference and Ruth was one of the featured speakers. I was looking forward to hearing her, but was expecting the talk to be somewhat depressing. After all, this was the woman who wrote Letters I Never Wrote – a sort of memoir of her own life in boarding school in Liberia and beyond.

She was great. She was funny and engaged us from the start. It was a personal story she told that opened my eyes to the importance of not just telling stories, but really listening to the stories of others. She talked about working as a fairly new nurse on an Alzheimer’s unit.

She said it was a perfect fit for her as a third culture kid: she didn’t know who she was and none of her patients knew who they were.They were all in this identity crisis thing together, though not from the same root cause.

Ruth told a story of leaving work one day and running into another nurse in the parking lot. The nurse was completely out of breath, she was late for work. As Ruth realized how distraught this woman was, she began asking questions, This is where I lose track of the details but keep the main point of the story, for that was Ruth’s moment of change. She suddenly realized that she wasn’t the only one with a story, all the people she worked with had stories too.

They might not be stories that happened in Liberia or London or in an airport en route to a destination far away. But they were stories of life lived hard; of life lived with sorrow and joy, anger and drama.

I walked away from that session sobered and challenged. There were stories, stories that I hadn’t heard because of my TCK arrogance. Stories that were waiting to be told.

I began the hard work of learning to listen — not fake listening, framing my response before the person had finished their story, but active listening. Listening with my body, listening with my mind, and listening with my spirit.

I will always have to work at listening. And I still love telling my stories, I always will. But I’m learning that it is a privilege to walk beside people in their life story; an honor to be told a story in any language and any country.

How have you learned to listen to the stories of others? 

“Don’t Speak While I’m Interrupting” – Thoughts on Faith Dialogue

courtesy of http://www.savagechickens.com

Years ago at my brother Tom’s first Christmas as a married man, another brother, Stan (stay with me here – I have four brothers) gave him a Christmas gift that was envied by all. It was two couch pillows, made especially by Stan. One said in bold, machine-embroidered letters “Don’t interrupt while I’m speaking” while the other  replied “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting.”

The cushions were a humorous duo, the perfect gift for a newly married couple at their first Christmas together.

While the pillows were funny, living out interruptions on a regular basis is not. When I think about faith and faith dialogue, the “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting” phrase has been my mantra far too often. Even as people open their mouths to speak a sentence or articulate an opinion or belief on faith, I’m busy framing my reply. What an indictment on my willingness to hear another point of view; another’s words that will allow me to enter into a deeper relationship.

I have analyzed this inability to listen and I’ve come up with a fairly simple reason I don’t want people to speak while I’m interrupting. Fear. One little word with many ramifications. I am afraid that my faith cannot withstand argument. It is simultaneously troubling and freeing to admit this in a public forum.

It’s fear that I won’t have the answers to the many questions that can arise on evil, life, sin and eternity.

It’s fear that I will sound foolish in my feeble attempts at explanation.

It’s fear that my faith, this faith that is the foundation of my life, will be found wanting. 

It’s fear that I will not have a defense.

And as foolish as it sounds, its fear that if I listen, if I take the time to understand, somehow that will spell “compromise” that dreaded slippery slope of a word.

In a recent Facebook discussion, I confessed this to someone who, it’s safe to say, has some different views than I. Elena is a critical thinker and while she has strong opinions, she clearly wants dialogue. So much so that she has begun a Facebook page called “Civilities”. On this page she invites others to react and reflect, always bearing in mind the importance of true dialogue.

Here is an excerpt from the discussion:

It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I realized how bad I was at listening and how much I had been schooled in a vocabulary that those who did not share my faith couldn’t understand. I always thought I had to have a defense….and I think that may be what you’re talking about. Somehow, despite having a family that were great at discussions and critical thinking, I got it in my head that I had to have answers. All the answers. Constant defending is exhausting and crushes friendships. The need to defend changed for me as I began going through an introduction to Christianity where the goal is to listen and where there is a recognition that none of us have the power to convert. If I can convert you then someone else can convert you back. My whole world has changed as I’ve been let into the arguments and pain that Christianity has caused some of my friends. Those friendships are so strong, because I have no agenda. I love my friends and they love me without me having to defend a position. I have met more and more Christians in this area that are well able to engage in dialogue without coming across as dogmatic, doing so with respect and care, and a “free exchange” of ideas as you state, but I know that is not always the case…. “

The conversation went on and brought in several different view points and people. It was one of those rare times when people listened to each other and because of this all involved felt like they had been heard, had expressed what they wanted and had learned in the process.

Listening takes humility.

Listening takes time.

Listening means giving up control.

And it’s worth it. But as a talker I will be “in process” when it comes to listening until the day I die. Sometimes it will go well and there is no doubt that there will be other times when I will be living out the mantra “Don’t Speak While I’m Interrupting!”  But I have tasted of the kind of conversation and friendship that can result from listening, the kind of faith dialogue that makes people want to hear more,  and now that I have tasted of that sort of encounter, I will never be the same.

“I Will Listens to Your Problems for $2.00”

I love city streets. Around every corner is another story, or another imagined story. From vendors with Pashmina shawls for $5.00 and touristy kitsch to men in three-piece suits punching the keys of their all important blackberry’s, cities are full of life in all it’s forms.

Around one corner, in the middle of the activity of hundreds of people, was a laymen’s attempt at counseling. The sign said it all – no ambiguity, no false promises –

“I will Listens to Your Problems for $2.00”

It lay on the man’s chest as he dosed off in the humidity of an August afternoon in New York City. He was surrounded by what appeared to be most of his earthly possessions. Perhaps it was the closed eyes and apparent non-interest, but when we saw him he had few takers for the services he was offering.

The reality is he was offering a service that all of us need, and many pay thousands of fees to therapists for – that service of active listening. The listening that communicates to the speaker, “I hear you” “I get it” “I’m with you”. The listening that is not framing a response in the mind while the other person is talking. The listening that waits until the person has finished, and then asks the reflective question and clarifies to understand what is beyond the surface.

We live in a world where a person wears a sign that say “Free Hugs” and people wait in lines just to get that hug. A world where a sign saying “Free Love”, complete with rip-off tags that have the word “Love” typed on them are taken as soon as the sign is hung on a bulletin board. And a world where a homeless man will “Listens to your problems for $2.00”. We live in a world that longs for connection, human connection.

We try to substitute this need with all manner of other things. We substitute our need with busy lives, wearing our busy badges of honor, restless if we don’t have something planned during every minute of every day. We try to satisfy and substitute with gadgets, the latest in computer technology that will seemingly keep us wired.  But Apple and Microsoft won’t give us the touch of human contact that we need, and it’s difficult to listen electronically. By the time one chat has gone through the person has moved on to another topic.

I was both amused and challenged by the gentleman’s sign. Here was a sign and a service that could appeal to every man, woman and child walking the streets. Will I “listens to people’s problems” and in doing so offer some of the connection and soul-care that is so desperately needed in our world? And will I do it with no agenda, complete attention and no price tag?