Deep Listening in a Divided World
By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries

When I am attentive, I notice my reaction to conversation with others, especially those with whom I disagree. It is physical as much as emotional. My heart rate increases, there’s a tightening urgency in my chest, and my deepest convictions flare up—all demanding to be voiced. Perhaps the greatest—and most challenging— wisdom I ever have been given is that these difficult encounters can serve as paths to spiritual growth if I can muster the humility to let them.

The problem I experience with many of these difficult conversations is that I find myself in a defensive posture rather than open one, seeking to persuade. I line up my arguments while the other person is talking, only half attentive to what that person actually is saying.

I confess that I forget in these moments that the person before me also is beloved of God, a sacred mystery worthy of reverent curiosity and respect. I forget that the call of deep listening is to listen beneath the surface of things to that holy place where unity, not conformity, may be found. This is a spiritual practice, one I believe we need in our world right now.

In Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Margaret Wheatley describes the importance of staying open, even in our differences and fear.

To become fully human we need to keep opening our hearts, no matter what. At this time when suffering and anxiety continue to increase, when there is always reason to weep for some unbearable tragedy inflicted by one human on another, I try to remember to keep my heart open. In my own experience, I notice that I like myself better when I am generous and open-hearted. I don’t like who I become when I’m afraid of others, or angry at them.

Invited to Listen Deeply to One Another

Holy curiosity: In your next conversation, practice holy curiosity toward the other person. How might it change the tone or direction of the conversation if you genuinely are interested in understanding as much as you can about who this person is, what he or she is sharing, and why it matters to him or her? This is an exercise in our Enduring Principle, Worth of All Persons.

Questions that open: Practice asking questions that open possibilities rather than limit them. Often our questions carry assumptions that may be obvious or hidden. It’s important to be aware: Is this question masking a hidden agenda or trying to lead to a certain outcome? Resist the temptation to assume you know what a person means when they use a word or phrase charged with political or religious significance. Consider asking questions that reflect genuine desire to understand. “Could you share more about ______?” “What do you mean when you say ______?” or “What is your experience with ______?”

Inner movements: Self-awareness is critical to deep listening. It can take time to learn how to listen at the same time to our own inner lives and the person sharing. We are invited to pay attention to our initial reactions to what people say (like my own earlier confession) and ask ourselves: “What is the source of this reaction? Am I reacting in fear, anger, or frustration, or am I responding from a place of love and desire to understand?” If we can slow down enough to breathe between our responses and notice where they are coming from, we, too, can enter conversation from a freer and more honest place.

Invited to Listen Deeply to the Spirit

The invitation to listen deeply begins in our relationship with God. In challenging times, we need the reminder to ground our lives in the Spirit as the source of our response. The practice of discernment is, at its essence, about listening to God and trying to align our lives more completely with the divine invitation in each moment.

Sometimes we are invited into silent attention and the humility to release our own agendas so we can encounter the sacred Other. In other moments, we are invited to boldly proclaim a message of justice and peace, to speak words that might feel confrontational but always with a spirit of love rooted in the hope of the peaceable kin-dom made real wherever we are.

This is not always easy to distinguish, which is why cultivating a habit of prayerful listening to the Spirit is so important. We grow in awareness over time. Sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes our words may wound unnecessarily. In these times, we pray for the courage to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes our words are essential to open a door to deeper understanding. Sometimes they are indispensable to confront injustice in relationships or systems. In these times, we pray for the courage to speak with the wisdom of our prophetic tradition, even when fear rises as we calculate the cost of our action.

Being attentive to what is happening within us and around us, listening deeply to others and God, we can begin to have conversations that might heal our divided communities and world. The spiritual life is not about withdrawing from challenging times, but entering them more fully and with greater intention. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “A real spiritual life…makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.”

In all that happens, may you discover the wisdom and courage to keep your heart open, listening deeply to God, others, and your own sacred self. May we listen into the wholeness we seek.

Resources for Going Deeper

• Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future by Margaret Wheatley
• Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
• The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by Dean Brackley

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