How to Listen

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 4th 2013.)

Reading: “Deep Listening” by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton

Sermon: “How to Listen”

About ten years ago I worked in a university research group that met at lunch-time each Friday for a presentation.  The food — usually pizza — was provided and the presenters were often people from inside the group but were sometimes researchers visiting us from elsewhere.  The typical format had the presentation itself lasting around forty-five minutes and then there’d be time for questions and general discussion.

The room where we met was perhaps half the size of this Sanctuary, a simple rectangle with a screen on one side and tables arranged in a squared-off ‘U’ shape so that people could sit and eat and listen to the presenter.  Maybe it was the intimacy of the space, as distinct from the anonymity of, say, a big lecture hall, but it wasn’t unusual for people to interrupt the presentation by asking questions.

After being in this research group for a while I noticed something.  Sometimes the questions were simple requests for clarification or for the presenter to repeat something.  More often, though, the questions were more involved, and either distracted from the point of the talk or pre-empted what was going to come next anyway.  In those cases it was clear that the person asking the question wasn’t really listening to what the presenter was saying, and was instead thinking about the question they were planning to ask.

Now this sort of thing is to be expected in an academic setting, where ideas are supposed to be debated and tested and compared so that bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can be made better.  And in everyday life, we’re used to the back-and-forth of conversation as a dialogue, where giving advice or making suggestions is usually okay, and where whoever is not speaking at any given time is more often than not thinking about what they’re going to say next.  This is what might be called “regular listening”, though it’s really characterized by the basic sensory experience of hearing rather than the intentional, conscious act of listening.

Then there’s what is called “active listening”, which is what is supposed to take place in a classroom or a learning circle or during counseling or therapy.  Here the focus is on particular subject matter or issues.  The content of what is being said is evaluated by the listener, and may be reframed or reflected for clarification.  There is also a concern for the consequences of the conversation, in that its purpose may be to teach something or to develop understanding.  It’s called “active” listening in contrast to a passive activity where what is said is simply heard; rather, the hearer becomes a listener by actively engaging with what is said.

That’s all well and good.  Both regular listening and active listening have their value.  In a congregation such as ours, for instance, regular listening is the casual conversation that takes place before, between and after services, right outside the Sanctuary doors.  It’s the “small talk” that comes into the building with us as we arrive for a meeting, letting us catch up with what is going on in one another’s lives, helping us to feel connected to the people we know and like and love, and conveying in whatever words are actually spoken a simple yet essential reminder: “You are human and so am I.”

Active listening, meanwhile, takes place in RE classes and discussions, in presentations and workshops, in committee meetings and planning sessions.  Active listening is essential if information is to be conveyed, if knowledge is to be gained, if action is to be taken, or if decisions are to be made.  Active listening, in other words, is essential to the success of the business of the congregation, whether that’s providing hospitality on Sunday morning or developing programs for advocacy and outreach or funding a healthy budget that enables our mission and ministry.

But here’s where we run up against an important truth.  All of that business is in support of something other than itself.  And reminding one another that we’re human is a start, but not an end.  If the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, then we need more than either regular listening or active listening can provide.  We need what we call “deep listening”.

As doctor and author Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give one another is our attention.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.”

Deep listening is different from regular listening in that there is no conversation.  Dialogue, in fact, tends to get in the way, because when you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not actually listening.  And deep listening is different from active listening in that what is heard is not evaluated or judged, but simply accepted with attentive compassion.  It focuses on individuals and their experiences and their feelings about those experiences, and it is never, ever about offering advice or making suggestions or trying to “fix” the other person.

Now I’m more than willing to admit that this doesn’t come naturally to many of us — and that certainly includes me!  But it is something that, like most things, we can practice and get better at doing.  So I’d like us to do just that, right now.  Actually I’d like you to practice “active listening” first, since I’m going to give you some instructions I’d like you to follow, but I want you to hear the instructions in full before you start following them.

In a moment I’m going to ask you to pair up with someone sitting near you.  Whether you already know them or not doesn’t matter.  And if you don’t want to take part in this, that’s perfectly fine; just make that clear to the people around you.  Once you’ve found another person, decide between the two of you who will be speaking and who will be listening.  Then the speaker should start speaking, and what you’re going to speak about is something at least reasonably meaningful that happened to you during the last week.  Talking about something emotional is okay, but if the only thing on your mind has a particularly strong emotional charge, you should probably be the listener for the purpose of this exercise.  The listener, then, should simply listen.  No questions, no verbal responses, no conversation.  Just listen, deeply and compassionately.

After a minute or two, I’ll ring the bell.  (That may not seem like a whole lot of time, but remember that the point of this is not to convey information or an entire story about your daily life.)  At that point, the speaker should stop speaking, and now the listener will name the feelings that came across.  Was the speaker sharing a happy experience?  Or a sad one?  Was there regret or joy or fear or hope in what was spoken?  Simply name the feelings that you heard.  If there’s only one to name, that’s fine.  Then I’ll ring the bell again, and we’ll continue the sermon.

So now, please get into pairs and begin the exercise.

[The exercise took place!]

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has explained that “We hear with one aim only; we don’t listen in order to criticize, to blame, to correct the person who is speaking or to condemn the person.  We listen with one aim, and that is to relieve the suffering of the one we are listening to.”

Now unless those of you who were speaking were sharing a recent experience that troubled you, you may not feel that you had any suffering that needed to be relieved.  But I hope, at least, that in speaking you felt affirmed and sincerely heard.  I also suspect that, for more than a few of you, this may be the first time you have had someone else simply listen to you, without judgment or agenda.

As President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, has noted, people are now more isolated than ever before.  A 1985 survey asked participants how many people they knew in whom they could really confide; the most common answer was three.  Repeating the survey in 2004, the most common answer was zero.  Morales has called this “our greatest challenge”, that, in this age of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter, we are, in his words, “the most emotionally isolated human beings who have ever lived on this planet.”

As part of our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we offer facilitated opportunities to engage in deep listening, to bring people together simply to listen to each other, accepting one another’s words with compassion and without judgment, in the form of small group ministry that we call Fellowship Circles.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I have invited some of the participants from last round of Fellowship Circles to share their experiences with you this morning.

[Read on the UUFP e-Flame the testimonials offered by four UUFP members: “Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles”, “Turning Strangers Into Friends”, “The Quiet Heart of Our Beloved Community”, and “A Deeper Perspective”.]

Small group ministry affirms right relationship as a basic practice of life together, a way we live our faith that goes beyond petty pride and vanity to allow joy and pain to be genuinely shared, striving to be our best selves in fellowship with one another.  As we prepare to begin another round of Fellowship Circles this Fall, my question to you is not, “Do you have time to be a part of this?”  Rather, my question is, “Do you have the time not to be a part of it?”

I remain convinced that small group ministry is one of the most important ways we can save ourselves and our world.  Participants in our Fellowship Circles offer one another a safe space where they can share what is truly in their hearts, and that is the greatest gift that we can give one another.  As writer and behaviorist Margaret Wheatley declares, “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.  Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.”

May it be so.

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7 Comments »

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  3. […] opportunity to use it in a service, so I was very pleased when, as part of my recent service on “How to Listen”, I got to read to the congregation the poem “Deep Listening” by Mary-Elizabeth […]

  4. […] Moseley presented this testimonial as part of the August 4th 2013 “How to Listen” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the […]

  5. […] UUFP member presented this testimonial as part of the August 4th 2013 “How to Listen” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the […]

  6. […] Luke presented this testimonial as part of the August 4th 2013 “How to Listen” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the […]

  7. […] Phillips presented this testimonial as part of the August 4th 2013 “How to Listen” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula.  Gayle is Fellowship Circle […]

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