Friday, July 27, 2007

A is for Attentiveness: Grace Happening People are Attentive

This is the seventh installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

“To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”

Douglas Steere, Quaker leader and author of the above nugget of truth, captures what I believe is the essence of what I do as a therapist—and what each one of us can learn to do, with patience and practice. It never ceases to amaze me how healing and empowering it is just feeling listened to. To have someone sit quietly, eyes focused on you, encouraging you to say more is an incredible gift of grace.

Steere identified four essential qualities of a good listener: a willingness to be vulnerable and risk being wounded; an agape acceptance that appreciates the other person “as is” and resists the temptation to force him into a mold of our own choosing; hopeful expectancy, seeking to find God in the messiness of life; and constancy, the ability to stand alongside and not abandon the person in need of our attention.

In the eighteenth century, following a rebellion, Quaker, John Woolman, attempted unsuccessfully to communicate with Chief Papunehang through a Moravian missionary. At a loss, Woolman simply prayed aloud without the benefit of translation. Communication happens on many levels and it was obvious that they had connected deeply when Papunehang commented, “I love to feel where words come from.” Just imagine what it would be like if we could hear each other from that place where words come from! The Bible refers to Jesus as the Word. Thus, to connect from that place within me where my heart meets God, and to hear who you are, free of my own baggage, and know you in that place where your heart meets God, is a transformational and spiritual encounter.

We all know how to listen, right? Well, I hate to split hairs, but there is a significant difference between hearing and listening. We all have selective hearing that attends to what we want to hear and ignores that which we don’t want to hear. And often our selective hearing is governed by self-preservation. If I feel threatened by your thoughts, feelings, or opinions, then I’m going to turn down or turn off my hearing aid. Or maybe worse, I may put my own spin on what you are saying, and mishear you through my faulty filtering system. Hurtful life experiences deform my heart’s ear and, unconsciously, I may confuse you with someone else who hurt me in the past. As we grow spiritually and heal emotionally, our listening abilities vastly improve.

“In every experience of true listening...there is a mysterious moment in which the one who listens steps out from a fortress of self-concern and dwells silently in the truth of the one who speaks. This is a moment of great risk and great courage, for it ushers us into a different way of being in the world.” (John S. Mogabgah) Perhaps this explains why sometimes it is painfully important to me to rigidly maintain my grasp of reality rather than allow myself to be impacted by the thoughts and feelings of others. Is my fortress so fragile, my own grasp on reality so frail, my fears of change so immobilizing that I must tune out and turn off? Yes, sometimes. But when I feel safe enough to truly be attentive, I am graced by intimate moments of knowing someone in a deeper way and, in turn, knowing myself more deeply as I am enriched and invited to grow and heal by hearing your truth.

I invite you to practice “listening another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery,” and in so doing, risk the transforming touch of God. The art of listening comes with growth and healing and practicing your listening skills can pave the way. Turn off the TV. Make eye contact. Bite your tongue. Stay out of your noggin (I see you in your noggin, planning your rebuttal!). Suspend judgment. Open your heart.

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