Monday 11 August 2014

The Art of Listening

By Brother Daniel Leckman, S.J.

A few weeks ago, as I was praying with the city, I contemplated one of the recurring themes in my Jesuit vocation: I've known for years that I can be a good listener to people’s stories and spiritual journeys. This does not mean that I remember everything they tell me. It just means that I have a natural ability to silence my own voice and listen to the experience of the other so attentively that I almost feel like I’m partaking in it. I believe this is one of the greatest assets I bring to the Society of Jesus but I also know that there are limitations to my ability. I know, for example, that a crowded room can distract me from focusing solely on one person. I also know that, for whatever reason, there are times when I lose interest in a person’s account. I feel bad whenever that does happen but it’s just part of life I guess. Finally, I’m fully aware of the fact that when I work as a spiritual director there is a certain danger of being too emotionally engaged in listening to my directee. Until this particular prayer, I had always thought that my ability to connect with people by emotionally sharing their experience would be one of my great assets to the society. That night, I began having second thoughts about it.

However, rather than letting the doubt consume me I took the Ignatian route: I began asking what it is that would be necessary to hone these skills. After all, one aspect of being Ignatian is taking the gifts that we have as individuals and nourishing them even more so that they can flourish into gifts for others. Once I understood that, I also understood that part of the answer to my question of how to perfect my listening skills lay in my own history, my past.

At that moment, I began to think about one of my uncles who had a very particular habit. Every year when our family got together for Christmas, he would take me aside, and say, “Tell me a Danny story.” With a bit of reluctance I’d start talking about my year a little but before I knew it I would realize that his gaze was completely upon me and that he would never interrupt. Somehow, this made me feel that in his eyes I was the most important person in the room at that moment. So I would keep going and before I knew it this uncle with whom I wasn't even that close would manage to get me to open up about some very personal details in my life that even my parents would not have known. And he reserved this question for my siblings and cousins as well; so it wasn't just for me. His approach was perhaps a little unorthodox, some might even argue it was lame, but it worked beautifully.

In my prayer, I realized why my uncle's approach worked. That simple, somewhat tacky, but surprisingly effective gesture showed people how much he cared about them. I realize that no matter how much I state that my vocation is rooted in love, I very often don’t really care about the person in front of me, either because I’m bored, tired, or simply uninterested. But how can I be uninterested by the lived story of any child of God? My boredom in those moments, regardless of its causes, does not reflect my greater vocation to be a loving presence before others.

Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself, but after this prayer I realized that a big part of my desire to listen better lies in how much I allow myself to care about others. And yes, that desire to care must sometimes be translated into effort: it’s not enough to say you care, there has to be some gesture there to back your sentiments! But if I already know that God is in every moment of labour that I live then I will know that he is also with me in those moments when I don’t really care but I really want to care! This is one important part of my desire to become a better listener; though I’m sure there are many others to uncover as the years go by. May the Holy Spirit grant me patience and perseverance in this task and may he also open your heart today to become a more caring listener to those around you!

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