As a Dean, a Diversity Professional, a Pastor, and a former Social Worker I’ve had my share of difficult conversations. In fact, I usually had a few every week. Mediating conflict, conduct violations, racial slurs, domestic and sexual abuse, child neglect and suicidal ideations. You name it, I’ve sat with it. So, I’ve tried to get really good at listening.
When you really listen to someone with your eyes and your ears (90% of our communication is nonverbal)*, you often hear the things that lie beneath the words. Tone, pitch, rate, gestures, facial expressions, volume, and posture all tell us something about what the other person is trying to communicate. But, amazingly I’ve discovered that effective listening starts with me first.
You see, all of us bring our “stuff” into every conversation we have. If you come into a difficult conversation tired, hungry, or frustrated your internal distractions will impact your ability to listen. If you come into a difficult conversation with pre-conceived notions, biases, or prejudices about the other person your attitude will impact your ability to listen.
However, if I do the “work” beforehand to prepare myself it greatly increases my chances of listening more effectively. What do I mean by “do the work”? I mean make sure you eat and try to rest well the night before. Do everything you can to minimize distractions.
Also, I repeat two simple mantras before any difficult conversations. The first is a fundamental truth meant to align my perspective with God’s perspective (and therefore silence my biases). Here it is: “This person is made in the Image of God. Therefore, they are worthy of my love and respect. No matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done. God loves them and commands me to do the same.”
The second one is similar yet helps me in a different way. It gives me an internal “checklist”. It is simply this: “Everyone wants to feel seen, heard, and understood.”. At the end of a difficult conversation, I go back and ask myself “How did I demonstrate that I saw, heard, and understood that individual?”
Listening well is hard and holy work. As Diana Senechal says,
Listening involves a certain surrender, a willingness to sit with what one does not already know…Listening requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect or want.”
This week, I wonder if you would be so bold as to assess your listening habits. Do you zone out when people talk to you? Are you developing a counter-argument while the other person is speaking? Here’s a great listening quiz if you’d like a tool. I hope you can begin to see listening as an act of love.
“The first duty of love is to listen.” – Paul Tillich