Listening is harder than it looks. Perhaps you’ve shared from the heart, offered your best prepared argument, bravely expressed your deepest conviction – and life proceeded as if you had never spoken. We feel empty when we are not heard. When life imitates Kafka, how do you cope?
We give loved ones a nudge. Maybe you are not as good a multitasker as you think. It does not feel good, we might say, to be assured that the ballgame in progress will not interfere with your hearing me as fully as your interest requires.
Sometimes conversations go awry because people do not grasp that a conversation is taking place. Conversation implies mutual interest. When the interest is not mutual, we call it something else: a lecture, perhaps, or a scolding, or a performance. When we sit down together over coffee, or respond to one another’s incoming messages, we open ourselves to one another, assuming the other person reciprocates our interest in what they have to say. When our thoughts are overlooked, or our words come back twisted, we are likely to be frustrated, hurt, and angry. Listening is a form of respect, and when it goes wrong, we take it to heart.
Community gatherings are invitations to mutual listening about a shared concern. When listening in a group setting fails, it is often because people think they are objective listeners, when they are not. Nobody is. We all have filters, and easily tune out anything we hear that sounds “wrong”: too different, too much like what grandma used to say, too bold, too touchy-feely, too academic, too ethnic, too political. Listening, within a community, happens when we feel empathy for the others in the room, when we sense a common bond. That sense of connectedness can be ephemeral; when a speaker seems too much like an Outsider, the impulse to listen vanishes like footprints in the mist.
Without listening, relationships quickly stagnate. Listening is replaced by the hearer’s unexamined beliefs about what their partner, or everybody else in the room, or the church, or the nation, is thinking. Listening is replaced by projection of the hearer’s hopes and fears onto other people. The speaker’s words may stir his feelings about something significant, but people become little more than memes in the hearer’s picture of the world. People who hear without listening do not realize they are doing this. They just think they are right.
Failure to listen does damage. When somebody fails to listen to us, we feel isolated and devalued. Polite protest may go unnoticed, or it may be minimized, characterized as needy or presumptuous. If a relationship really is mutual in the first place, and worth preserving, it may require something more.
A jolt of healthy anger.
If they are not listening, and content to not listen, we can be angry with our loved ones, our friends or our church, without losing civility. Anger scares us, and for good reason; people say hurtful things in anger that they later regret. Diffuse, unreflective anger poisons public debate, making it emotionally risky to talk about religion or politics. We reject emotional violence; we have tried sending ourselves to “anger management” training, hoping to control a force that we have seen run amok. We seek inner transformation, hoping that through spiritual practice, we might become so benign and generous that we are never really angry. Maybe just a little annoyed. What good could it possibly do, to listen to anger?
Anger tells us that the normal routine is causing unforeseen hurt, which is ongoing, invisible and inaudible to the people who need to know, because they are not listening.
If our lives are connected, we are vulnerable to one another. If somebody I care about, or a group I care about, fails to listen, our relationship is diminished. Of course I am angry. What else could I be? Anger is only toxic if you swallow it.
Once our loved ones realize that something is missing, change becomes possible. How well do we really know one another, and care for the fulfillment of one another’s hopes? Want to fix that?
Listening requires humility; our picture of the world must be subject to revision. Then again, that sounds very much like the life plan of someone who is willing to grow.