I got serious about listening when I realized I was missing things. Layers of meaning and opportunities for connection were lurking near the surface of my relationships, but I wasn’t hearing them, even with those people I loved most. I was skilled at saying wise and empathetic sounding things; I was more skilled at holding people at arm’s length. Whenever a conversation turned toward emotions, I started looking for an exit.
My retreats were subconscious. I didn’t realize that I was backing away from conversations and from the people who had the courage, or foolishness, to express emotion to me. It wasn’t like I was walking out of the room. Well, I suspect that if my heart had legs it might have tried. I considered a moment of pain, crisis, or unfiltered emotion an opportunity to impart my insight, to rescue someone from their weakness, to correct distorted thinking, to evaporate the pain. In my mind it was a chance to engage a problem; in truth I was disengaging from the person. Surprisingly, my strategy to fix people never worked. Not one damn time.
A few years later, when asked to write down my personal mission statement, I wrote this:
Above all else, I want the people in my life to know that when they come to me, with whatever is on their mind or heart, they will be heard. I am dedicated to hearing the hearts of those around me.
It’s unlikely to make the annals of Christian history alongside Saul on the Damascus Road or Saint Augustine’s “take and read” moment, but clearly I went through some kind of conversion experience. The friends I have known since my college days would like to award me the “Most Improved” trophy, which we all know is a way of saying “You used to be truly awful, but we’re no longer embarrassed to have you on the team.” I get the Most Improved Listener trophy. It’s a golden ear.
What changed was this: I had a mentor who wouldn’t let me get away with ducking out of emotional conversations. We met every Wednesday afternoon for 4 months, and she drilled this into me: “Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling.” She seized on my tendency to run from feelings, both from the feelings of the people I worked with and from my own. The pattern was unmistakable: every time someone shared a real feeling, I told them, in one way or another, not to feel it.
Sometimes I tried to argue them out of the feeling, sometimes I tried to divert it with humor, sometimes I offered up quick reassurance, like “it will all work out” and at other times, I tried to pray the feeling out of them. I was the feelings exorcist. The way I dealt with the emotions of others, was indicative, as it always is, of the way I treated my own emotions. Every time I walked into a patient’s room, I checked my heart at the door. I had little capacity for entering into the emotional world of others because I was unfamiliar with the terrain of my own emotional world. When that is the case, you have little choice but to practice a ministry marked by standing over people rather than sitting with them.
I suspect it was not a coincidence that I soon found myself in a ministry that centered around listening. I am not sure what possessed me to say yes to a hospice chaplain job. Someone out there must have prescribed listening as a cure for my soul. Day after day, for 4 years, I sat at the bedsides of the dying and the grieving, and I also killed the buzz of every party I attended by simply answering the question “What do you do?”
All ministries are (or should be) listening ministries, but in a hospice ministry in particular, a listening presence is largely what you have to offer, which turns out to be quite a bit. Hospice patients have big feelings. The ones who don’t are usually doped up on Morphine. My patients had surprisingly little interest in any input I could provide for their situation. Apparently even my level of insight couldn’t fix this whole dying problem. So I listened. And I empathized. And I mirrored back emotions. And a few people departed this world in peace. That was when the phrase “I just listened” left my vocabulary forever. Deep listening is too impactful to ever be preceded by “just.”