Monday, October 31, 2016


There was a great tweet doing the rounds recently: 'We no longer listen in order to understand; we listen in order to reply'.

I think it arose from the writer's consideration of polarised debates (on Brexit, gay rights in church, Corbyn, etc etc). And the more I reflect on it, the truer I think it is.

I've been volunteering for a small organisation that creates safe spaces for facilitated conversation in neighbourhoods where people feel threatened, typically by immigration. There is no agenda other than to enable and listen to hear honest, personal storytelling. It's incredibly powerful because, when people are carefully listened to without fearful reaction, they have space to hear their own voice more clearly.

I've become more and more interested in silent prayer and the idea of spiritual accompaniment, where the subject is faced with (uncomfortable) space and silence and can therefore undergo quite radical inner change. To really listen, or be listened to, is demanding and challenging.

I've noticed how many churches and Christian organisations organise themselves around an agenda. (It might be called a mission statement. It's usually an agenda.) In practice, this often means only voices that fit the plan are tolerated. Dissidents are suspect, marginalised and excluded. Gifts are turned down.

It's easy to decide we have a personal contact 'figured out' when, really, all we know is our belittling fantasy of them: "Oh, of course, Sue is an only child so she's bound to find it hard to compromise."

To a certain extent, this is inevitable and harmless. But I think warning signs should go off if:
  • you haven't actually spoken to Sue about this opinion you hold
  • you mainly encounter Sue online
  • you haven't had an update from Sue on this issue for a while
  • you have a vested interest in explaining Sue's life in this way.
Actually, this example sums up the problem quite neatly. Listening means engaging with people and the world as it actually is. Too often we hear and reply according to our particular brand of fantasy about the world and other people. Liberals are elitists. Brexiteers are stupid. Tom is selfish. Muslims are dangerous. Catholics are superstitious. Etc.

The world is pretty great, if you stop to listen to it.

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