First Reading: By Erika Hewitt
This piece written by Rev Erika Hewitt and is from her book: “The Shared Pulpit” It’s a reader’s theater piece – imagining the thoughts of different people in a group invited to share deeply.
I don’t have anything to say. Well, I do—but what if it’s not be interesting to anyone.
I have secrets inside me, and struggles, and I don’t know if I’m ready to share them.
I want to hear what you have to say.
I want to speak of the deepest things together.
Second Reading: Rebecca Parker
There is a quality of listening that is possible among a circle of human beings, who by their attentiveness to one another create a space in which each person is able to give voice to the truth of his or her life. There is the miracle of authentic narrative, made possible by listening that holds still long enough to let our truth be told.
Author of the world famous negotiations book “getting to yes,” William Ury tells a story on why he thinks it’s important to listen.
Some years ago Ury was in Venezuela serving as a third party between the government and the political opposition at a time of intense conflict, with a lot of people fearing a civil war.
Ury and his colleague, Francisco Diaz had an appointment with the President, Hugo Chavez, at 9:00 PM at the Presidential Palace.
Here’s what unfolded, in his own words:
It was midnight, before we were ushered in to see the President who had his entire cabinet arrayed behind him.
He asked me: “So, Ury, what do you think of the situation going on here?”
“Mr. President,” I said, “I’ve been talking to your ministers here, to the opposition. I think you’re making some progress.”
“Progress? What do you mean progress?” he shouted. “You’re blind. You’re not seeing all the dirty tricks those traitors are up to.”
He leaned in very close to my face and proceeded to shout.
What was I going to do? Ury continues, Part of me felt like defending myself, naturally. But what good would it do for me to get into an argument with the President of Venezuela? How would that advance peace?
So, Ury said, I just listened.
He gave Chavez his full attention. Listened to exactly where he was coming from.
President Chavez was famous for making eight hour speeches. (and don’t forget, it was midnight before Ury was even ushered in)
After 30 minutes of just nodding and listening, Ury said he saw Chavez’ shoulders slowly sag.
Finally, Chavez said to him in a very weary tone of voice: “So, Ury, what should I do?”
That, Ury comments, is the sound of a human mind opening to listen.
“Mr. President, it’s almost Christmas.” Ury responded, “The country needs a break. Last year, all the festivities were canceled because of the conflict. Why not propose a truce this time so that people can enjoy the holidays with their families? After that, maybe everybody will be in a better mood to listen.”
He said: “That’s a great idea. I’m going to announce that in my next speech.” His mood had completely shifted.
How? Through the simple power of listening.
Because I listened to him, Ury concluded, he was more ready to listen to me.
And because of that, I will add, the whole situation and possibly the fate of an entire nation, turned around, in that one interaction.
We may not all be state leaders or advising state leaders but I think we habitually underestimate the power of listening in *our* lives. I think we habitually underestimate the power of listening to open up a space of real change, possibly even profound change.
Preparing for the congregational year this summer I kept encountering evidence of that significance. I found myself again and again, encountering testimonials to the power and importance of listening.
The training materials for our budding Lay Pastoral Care team naturally referenced the power of listening. Emphasizing the fact that you don’t need a counseling degree or any special training to be present to another person in this way, and, those training materials made it clear just how simply listening – without interrupting, without advice giving, is often the most essential need for someone going through a difficult time.
I read up on anti-racism work in other congregations while exploring how we might live into our anti-racism resolution. One of the books I read put it very succinctly: the key to anti-racism work is relationships, relationships, relationships. And the foundation for those relationships? Deep listening.
To people impacted by racism, to people who are unawarely acting it out. It’s great to start with listening.
And I spent time planning for our Connection Groups, which start up again in just a few weeks. These groups, also known as small group ministry are, in their essence, all about deep listening.
And I don’t need to tell you. One thing we do not seem to be doing very well as a society is listening to each other. Deeply or shallowly. When there is a disagreement, both sides are often very clear that it’s the other side that not listening. Not listening to reason, not listening at all. I know I’m guilty of this sometimes.
We can be like that the president in Ury’s story. We may not have an 8 hour speech, but we know what we know and (other people should know it too) we may well want to share it. We do know a lot. We want to explain it. Or, we have useful advice, and we want to offer it. We know how to fix the problem, and we’d like to do that. The world’s problems, our neighbor’s problems, your problems….
The other day I was talking to a friend who going through a difficult personal challenge. Immediately I had what I thought was a pretty smart insight. I decided I should probably let her finish though and as she continued she came up with her own insight about her situation. In fact her insight was arguably better than mine. And it was hers. I confess I went ahead and told her my “smart” thoughts anyway to which she made a bemused sounding noise that I was tempted to call appreciation, but probably was just tolerance. The interaction reminded me of this little video – made during quarantine – a spoof of a husband and wife talking about her feelings during the pandemic, I just feel like it’s so hard right now she tells him, and then – well see what follows. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB3x7Q5eBsg second 9-22. That made me laugh anyway.
One of the key tenants of deep listening, it would be fair to say, is, don’t fix. Don’t try to fix the other person or their situation. They often don’t want to be fixed anyway. You’ve probably noticed this, if you’ve ever tried.
I’ve noticed it. A friend of mine gave me some unasked for advice the other day which, although the advice was fine, left me feeling less than great. I’ve slowly been coming to the realization that when we offer advice, even if we’re pretty sure it’s good, there’s what I’ll call collateral damage. Because when we give advice, we are subtly implying, even when we are most well meaning, some lack of confidence in their ability to figure it out themselves. We are subtly undermining their trust in their own ability to find an answer to their dilemma, whatever that answer might be.
So that’s the other tenant – deep listening requires trust. Trust in the other person’s capacity to figure out what they need to, and trust in our own capacity to handle it if they don’t do what we think they should. Trust that perhaps, even if someone veers off the path, they may just find their way back. Trust that maybe they know their path better than we do. After all, they’re the ones on it, they know the most about it, maybe even more than me? Still, speaking for myself, trust is hard.
And yet, this kind of listening may be the best. May even be the only?? way to genuinely help someone move to a deeper understanding, a fresh insight, a new direction which you could not have predicted beforehand. Nor could they. There is an alchemy that can happen. Creativity. It is possible for something brand new to emerge when two or more people open up that kind of space.
And it is a space. A place, as Rev. Scott Taylor calls it in his article on the theme for October.
“Just think about why you listen to those closest to you.” he writes, “Is it just to gather information? To hear the other clearly? Or is it because you’ve discovered in those rare moments of deep listening that a space suddenly opens up? A space that feels sacred. A space that, once you’ve experienced it, you never want to leave.”
A space, I will say, for the heart.
A space which, though wonderful, can nevertheless be challenging to create as a listener. We have to set ourselves aside. And we have to trust.
And it is a space which, no matter how beneficial for the one being listened to, can be hard for that person to step into.
At least, it can be hard to allow ourselves to be deeply listened to. We don’t expect it. We’re not used to it. We don’t always know what to do with it. On a recent zoom call a colleague shared an interaction with a member of her congregation. He was expressing disappointment over the lack of sincerity with which people ask “how are you.” People don’t really want to hear the answer, he said. They don’t want to know, he said, I don’t think they really care. So, in that moment, she turned to him, looked kindly and deeply into his eyes, and asked, with warmth, John, how are you. He looked a little startled, a little unsure, she said. Like, he didn’t know what to do with that sincerity. She didn’t mention whether he answered. But it points to the other half of this – allowing ourselves to be drawn out by that kind of genuine attention. By deep listening. That takes trust too.
Last week I talked about this place being a community of practice. A place where we get to practice forgiveness, apologizing, and living with integrity. But we also get to practice this. We get to practice this kind of deep listening, deep sharing, trusting, witnessing, opening, allowing. Which takes practice. And courage.
One of those ways is our connection groups. Groups of 8-10 in which we practice this kind of deep listening, and deep sharing.
That Erika Hewitt reading we heard earlier spoke beautifully to me of the inner barriers that can stand in our way of taking that kind of leap. The kind of thoughts that will come up – what if? what if? “What if I don’t have anything to say? What if it’s not interesting to you? What if I take up your invitation and really speak, but you don’t understand me?”
But then I love where that reading goes next, imagining this kind of deep listening space, imagining a kind of true receptive sincerity in other people:
“I want to hear what you have to say. I believe that wise words will emerge from you. I want to speak of the deepest things and hear what you dream about, I want to know what you hope for.”
“How will this work? What awaits us?
We can find out anything by beginning.”
Here, we can begin. Always learning, always growing, testing, trying.
Here, we can practice.
Not necessarily in a giant leap, because it takes time to build trust. But perhaps one step at a time.
Today, after worship, I’d like to invite you to a taste of connection group. Some of you may already have signed up for the series, some of you have participated before. This year, you may be feeling a hurdle because of the online situation. Some of you may have never done this before. So, here’s a chance to try it out.
After we sing our final song, we’ll invite you to participate in a “pop-up” connection group. So, instead of creating break out rooms for coffee hour, we’ll create breakout rooms for these. You don’t, of course, have to accept the invitation! But we invite you to try it. In each group there will be 6-8 of you and one or two facilitators who will talk a little bit about how the groups work, who will share the questions on September’s theme as food for thought, and then you will go around and any who would like will get a couple of minutes to share, from your own experience, on one of the questions, with no interruptions, no advice, no comment from anyone else. You can also pass and simply be present to others in the group.
The session will go about 45-60 minutes. So, till about noon.
Now, you may already have had the thought that you’re too busy to stay, or maybe your mind has come up with 1 or 2 or 3 reasons why not today, or not at all. Okay, maybe. But also, maybe not. Fear or resistance have a very convincing way of sounding like the truth that can lead us to miss out what could be a lovely, heart opening experience. So, I challenge you – I do – even if you’ve done them before or have already signed up, your presence will help make today’s groups an even better experience for everyone.
So give it some thought while we sing our closing hymn.
One way, to practice. One way, to try out deep listening.
A way of living that might just change your whole life.