Everyone who knows me knows I have a big mouth. I love to talk, I love to give advice, I love to leap in with my take on something that I only just barely found out about. It doesn’t help that I often get rewarded for it: I get paid to write, paid to talk, paid to share my opinion and analysis.
The exception to this is when I do interviews. I was comparing notes with my husband, who is a reporter, on how readily people will tell us intensely private things. It is truly amazing what people will reveal.
I used to think I had some particular talent for getting folks to open up, but now I know I don’t. It’s just that most people want to talk, and if you ask them to, they will. They want to tell their stories. Most of all, they want someone to listen.
“Most people want to talk, and if you ask them to, they will.”
When I go to conferences as a speaker, I’m there primarily to (as the name implies) speak. But I’m also there to listen. For every 40 minutes I spend speaking, I spend about five hours listening. It happens before the speech and after the speech, in an out of the conference space, on the sidewalk, in the hotel, in the bathrooms, on the plane.
Last time I was at a conference, I ended up sitting in the bar of the hotel for three hours, listening to some woman pour her heart out to me, an utter stranger. She told me the most terrible, dreadful, astonishing, heartrending things, and it was very clear to me that my job was to get comfortable and receive it without comment. People want to tell their stories. People want someone to listen. They need it.
I recently interviewed someone who shared a truly harrowing account of a miserable time in her life. She was going through a crisis she didn’t really understand, and she was desperate for some support and consolation. But she told me that everyone she confided in tried to make her justify her feelings to them.
Everyone challenged her to make sure she understood the implications of what she was saying. Everyone wanted to argue with her about the meaning of what she was going through. Not only was it not helpful, it actually added weight to her crushing emotional burden.
She just wanted to talk. She just wanted someone to listen. That was what she needed at that point, more than answers or solutions. She needed someone who would be a quiet, uncritical witness to what she was going through. She still remembers, years later, the one person who did listen and who did let her pour out her heart, and she is still grateful.
I know I’m not that person often enough–the one who just listens. Listening is hard, especially if what you’re hearing strikes close to your heart. Inside my head is a bubbling pot of words and opinions, and far too often, I let it boil over.
It’s easy enough to sit and listen when it’s literally my job, or when I’m taken out of my normal routine and can decide to use my unscheduled time purely for listening. But what about when my day already feels full up? What about if a kid has a burning need to talk and it’s just plain boring to me? What if it’s a homeless guy, and I just want to get my coffee and go?
But their need is just as urgent as the need of the woman in the bar, when I had plenty of time to kill. So that’s what I’m working on now: Trying to take myself out of the action for a few minutes, and letting someone else be the main point. Not being, as my college chaplain used to say, “the salt in every dish”. I’m trying to remember at least sometimes to put my own needs and desires and problems and ego on hold, and to simply be receptive, because someone else has a need.
“Think of how much listening Christ must have done in his 33 years.”
Let me be clear: If someone is pouring out their heart to you and you hear something that leads you to believe someone is in danger, then it’s not your job to listen quietly. It’s your job to act. But for most people, that is rare. What’s very common is that people need an outlet for their grief, their confusion, their misery. This you can provide.
Think of how much listening Christ must have done in his 33 years. How much listening he does now, when I hurl myself into the adoration chapel and gabble out my fears and nonsense. How even on the cross, in the process of bleeding and suffocating to death, he was listening, receiving, accepting without interruption, letting the two thieves pour out what was in their hearts. He let them say their piece.
More and more, I see that it is a Christ-like thing to simmer down and listen. When I think of all the thousands of priests sitting in confessionals, receiving hour upon hour of sad stories, sin and misery, weakness and woe, I’m astonished at how quiet they usually are.
Surely they have things they’d like to say; but they usually confine themselves to a few words, and then the words of absolution, offered with the power of the Holy Spirit.
It occurs to me that, there, too, Christ is listening, even more quietly than the priest. He lets the priest say the words of absolution for him, and lets the Holy Spirit do the work of what comes next. But first comes listening.
I think it is a holy thing to listen, as it were, with Christ’s ear, to intentionally sit quietly and receive the outpouring of someone else’s heart, and to entrust to the Holy Spirit what should happen next.
I know I’m not good at it. I’m working on it. How about you?