I heard on NPR the other day…
(is a phrase that make some eyes roll and others’ ears to perk… or perhaps both happen simultaneously)
But for real. I was driving home and overheard a man being interviewed. John Francis, the Planetwalker. He gave a TED Talk about choosing to take a vow of silence that ended up lasting 17 years. His story is fascinating, but he said this line, something he discovered about himself before he was silent. He said “I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I’d stop listening, and then I’d start to think about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong or to show them how smart I am.”
That honesty floored me.
I have been on the receiving end of this kind of “listening” before. Nothing shuts me down quicker than not feeling listened to. I think I have built up patterns in conversations to actively avoid that subtle carelessness from others that leaves me feeling so small and deepens the wound of feeling not known. I’d rather be a head-nodder, a question asker, a listener than to start to share something only to be cut off or be met with a distracted attempt to feign interest.
I am an introvert. Which means, as a pattern, not always, but often, I take on more of the listening side of conversations. I could feel a puffed up sort of pride about this, but as John Francis told what his vow of silence revealed about his heart, it made me wonder about the underlying motivations of how and why I listen.
How often do we listen just long enough to be able to prove someone wrong?
How much is my listening more about me looking like I’m a good friend listening well?
How often do our minds wander from the present moment as we retreat into ourselves and our own castle of introspection?
In what ways is the constant noise, external and internal, keeping us from really listening?
I think I’m often guilty of not listening well when I’m valuing productivity over people. I don’t necessarily fall in the same trap of listening for the sake of building an argument, but I start tuning out when the conversation gets in the way of getting things accomplished. A rather nasty internal conversation starts to play simultaneously when someone else is getting in my way of my to do list. And then I am disgusted by my own impatience in the moment, so the internal dialog gets even more cluttered.
It’s a fact that when I am over extended, stretched thin, or overwhelmed, it is nearly impossible to be fully present. I think, for me, the first step in being able to truly listen is to have healthy boundaries. If I’m not pouring into myself, getting enough rest, and able to remain in quiet long enough to listen to myself, there’s no way I can extend that to others.
From that place of rest, I am able to truly see people, to be able to genuinely ask about their stories, and listen, without an agenda. This is a gift, not something I can do on my own, but in those rare moments where my ego is graciously out of the way, and I’m not listening to prove anything, and I’m not trying to find an escape, I am connecting with another human. That kind of listening is a form of seeing and being seen. Simple, lacking pretense, beautiful connection.
These moments are rare, but they are worth chasing after, worth cultivating and making space for in our lives.
This kind of wholehearted presence, this silencing of noise and attending to the moment comes at a cost. It requires unrelenting practice and patience. It requires bravery and the risk of both being seen and being misunderstood. And the likely chance that in this true encounter with someone else, will mean entering into unknown territory, beyond the safety of familiarity or expectations, out of the boundaries of your knowledge or comfort, and without a clear guidebook or protocol of how to respond. True listening invites us into encounters with that which is other than us. A humbling, terrifying, mind-shifting, beautiful thing. A heart expanding thing.
“And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.”