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Thursday, July 25, 2024
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The art of listening well

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There’s much talk these days of listening. But do we really know how?PHOTO: FREEPIK.COM

Listening is like dialogue, but you have to know how. And don’t try doing it with an empty mind

The National Catholic Education Commission’s 2022 Conference opened with talk of listening (!?!).

Who could disagree? Governments, religions, universities, journalists may have been bad listeners post-WW2, but there has been growing devolution from above: ‘listen to our’ voters, laity, students, readers. Listening-talk presents as a new strategy.

It isn’t, though it’s one of those things we never do as well as we could (like forgiving, sacrificing for the poor, loving and visiting the criminal, praying etc).

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Listening is like dialogue. If you go in with an empty mind, it will not only be filled up by others, but filled up with a jumble of thoughts and feelings from different perspectives that mean little until they can be sorted, analysed, understood, contrasted, critiqued. Our minds are pulsing with their own thoughts.

The key is how you hold them and how you introduce to your mind the new thoughts to which you listen. For example, many bishops are talking of synodality right now. This doesn’t mean walking up to others empty-minded but walking with the past, including the Tradition and all its saints, and the would-be saints and fellow-sinners of the present we find walking beside us.

To that walk we bring all that we know — the moral truths and all the rest — and we interrogate and refresh our understanding of these. We look for new ways of understanding, unpacking and living what we believe.

And we have the ability, when persuaded we’ve got something wrong, to change our mind. This can be hard. People are often startled and appalled by each other’s thinking. Listening-talk today is claimed by the politically liberal and socially progressive.

Their agenda is then pitched to portray more conservative and traditional people as unlistening, uncaring. They may well be, but they may actually have listened, deeply and carefully, and just decided the progressive-liberal view is wrong in this instance.

I don’t have great anxiety over all this. Our Catholic world includes vast and growing numbers of believers who are not from the privileged and progressive west, and their greater sensitivity to walking with past and present together, and caring for local traditions should balance the rest of us. Listening to more conservative communities’ thoughts would really help here.

Human listening did not replace divine teaching, nor should it for us. We make up our minds for ourselves, listening and thinking, listening and thinking.

When I started work at universities, there were no qualifications to be a lecturer; just knowledge of and love for a discipline as judged by the university’s professors. I learned to lecture by listening to lectures (mostly bad!). I learned that in class as in life my first question is: who is my audience?

What do they need from me? I then taught by opening myself to student questioning, often giving that more attention than my prepared text.

Whoever you listen to — of whatever age, politics, temperament, culture — is interesting. Everyone has a question or an opinion we should strain to understand. But not always to validate.

The Father of Philosophy, Socrates, taught by asking questions and listening, but he used the answers to spot contradictions or inconsistencies in the student’s thinking and so encouraged him to think more, think again.

Aristotle believed the young required a model and guide, an exemplar of practical wisdom, who could walk beside, listen to and inspire the young person. Aquinas considered any viewpoint he could get his hands on and gave greater fame to the many whose views he sifts through in his great summaries of theology.

And who could fail to be inspired by St John Paul’s brilliant dialogue with the dangerous world of the 80s or moved by his global encounters with the questions of youth.

So, the tradition has always listened. But listening today often connects with victim culture. Victims rightly make demands on us, and demands must be heard. But it’s still important that we think things through.

We need to identify genuine victims and not see victimhood everywhere — or even worse, accept that simply having a demand to make makes me a victim. We prioritise care-giving by degree of need; we do not prioritise compassion; but compassionate response operates with thought and judgement, it’s not an absence of these.

‘God is love’ is a hard statement to understand. But that love projects itself in time and space as the life of Jesus Christ, and we humans can understand that.

It was the life not of a prince but a victim. It showed us what I think is one of the great truths: the greater the love the greater the risk; absolute love will always result in the Cross. Jesus gave himself over to listening because he was the Teacher.

Human listening did not replace divine teaching, nor should it for us. We make up our minds for ourselves, listening and thinking, listening and thinking.


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