Listening across 44 years

26 Nov

A couple of Fridays ago I was bell ringing for the Salvation Army at a supermarket in Cloquet (Minnesota) on behalf of my Rotary Club. As I was nearing the end of my shift, a small elderly woman pushing her shopping cart stopped to fish a dollar out of her handbag. After she put it in the red kettle (donate here!) she started chatting with me.

She told me a lot of people need help right now and she tried to do what she could. She explained how she is a Christian woman (Lutheran) and she believes if you are Christian you are supposed to help other people. It was the Friday after the presidential election and she told she had voted for Obama because he seems like he really wants to help people; the other guy (Romney), not so much. She told me she didn’t know if I had voted for Obama or not, but that’s what she thought. I told her I had not. She said that’s OK, I must care about people if I’m bell ringing. She asked me if I was a Christian.

She talked of how she, just the previous week, had buried her sister who was two years younger than is she. Her sister was 94 years old. She noted how she had visited her sister every day, and that she is fortunate she can still drive herself to the grocery store, to church and, up until recently, to visit her sister.

She told me how she hopes her sister is in heaven, and how she hopes she herself will go to heaven; she tries her best. Then she added that she’s pretty sure, she IS sure, her sister is there, but her (sister’s) husband — pause, a ruminating stare, a shake of the head, pursed lips — “I don’t think so.”

My Rotarian bell ringing relief showed up after about 10 minutes. Helge and I continued to talk. After another 10 minutes or so she told me she’d taken enough of my time, looked me in the eyes, and declared, “Thank you for listening; most people won’t take the time to listen.”

My only regret over my time with Helge was that I didn’t snap a picture of me and her.

I imagine humans have always been better at thinking and talking than at listening. Perhaps at this moment in history, it is harder than ever to listen, with so much external stimuli, such a fast pace of life, so many demands, distractions and preoccupations. Further, we simply just have SO MUCH to share about OUR OWN lives and what we think, and we get ample opportunity to tell so many people via social media. Who has the time, or inclination, to actually listen?

Thoreau once wrote in his journal, “The greatest compliment was paid to me today. Someone asked me what I thought and actually attended to my answer.”

Listening makes someone feel important or appreciated. Whether at home or in business, ask someone “What do you think?” and then really listen. After that, they would vote for you for president. I think it’s a way of not only showing interest, but compassion, and even respect.

Listening is the foundation of learning and understanding. If we really took time to ask and listen, then “Those stupid liberals!” might become, “She and I disagree, but I understand where she is coming from.” Once we know someone’s story, we can better understand them, what they think or believe, and why. To know someone’s story, we must make the time to listen, to actively listen, deeply listen. Shut up and listen. Close down the internal dialogue and listen. I think only once that happens will we begin to move past differences and solve problems. I think listening and healing might be two side of the same coin.

I thought of listening when I was teaching Taekwondo class this past Saturday. It is always interesting when I show something step by step to a class. There is a range of things that happens, from  students who look, listen and then do the correct thing, to those who seem to attend but still cannot do the correct thing, to students who don’t even wait until I finish explaining before they take the next, usually incorrect, step.

This is a common problem with listening. We start thinking and stop listening. As we start to analyze we miss what comes next. In conversations we start composing our reply, or rebuttal, and stop listening to what the other is saying, often missing something significant or, at least, the other pieces of the story.

We need to get out of our own thoughts, feelings and experiences, and take the time to listen to others, not simply to make them feel good, but to deepen and broaden our understanding and learning. Listening to Helge gave me lots to think about.

A while back, I interviewed some folks at my church in order to put together a video for our stewardship campaign. The interviews focused on their experience of our congregation. I talked with a man who is about 20 years my senior, and a couple who are about 20 years younger than me. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences related to my church that I’ve had in some time.

The next time you have a chance to interact with someone for a bit, make it a point to really listen; put aside what’s inside of you, your agenda, and listen. Better yet, at work, home, church, ask someone “What do you think/feel (about z)?” and then really listen to what they say. Dig deeper with follow up questions such as “Can you  share more about, or explain why you think,/believe/feel (that)?” Then, don’t answer, don’t rebut, don’t share back. Just take it in.

There is hearing and then there is listening. Truly listening is not easy; if it was, everyone would do it. I think we’d all be better off if more of us did.

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