Why are we still learning to listen?

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Why are we still learning to listen?

by Nicole Dickson



“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

The power of being truly heard has become a rare and highly sought-after commodity in today’s world.

As part of my vocation, I consider myself a listener. This means that I not only lend an ear to others in pastoral or therapeutic contexts but also facilitate opportunities for others to develop their own listening skills. This includes churches and, to date, three listening courses that have been offered at three different church communities, with two more planned for the second half of this year. The irony of teaching church communities to listen is not lost on me.

As places of spiritual guidance and community support, churches are expected to excel in the art of listening. However, the reality is that effective listening is a skill that requires intentional cultivation and development. 

Historically, churches have often held positions of authority and influence within society. This position of authority can inadvertently create a dynamic where churches feel compelled to “speak” and impart wisdom rather than actively listen. The irony lies in the fact that a central teaching of many faiths is humility, yet churches may struggle to embody this humility in their interactions with congregants.

Church services typically involve sermons and teachings where clergy members deliver messages to their congregations. While these practices are essential for imparting spiritual knowledge, they can sometimes overshadow the importance of active listening. The focus on preaching can inadvertently limit the space for congregants to share their thoughts, concerns, and experiences, hindering genuine dialogue.

Some churches operate within hierarchical structures, where decision-making authority primarily rests with a select few individuals. This structure can create a power dynamic that inhibits open dialogue and active listening. The paradox arises when the hierarchical nature of churches clashes with the principles of equality, inclusivity, and mutual respect that many faith traditions espouse.

Like any other institution, churches can be influenced by broader cultural and societal norms. In a fast-paced world that often prioritises immediate responses and sound bites, the art of intent listening can be undervalued.  Contradictory is the fact that churches, which aim to provide solace and guidance in an often chaotic world, may inadvertently overlook the power of attentive listening in addressing the needs of their congregations.

Perhaps this is an invitation to reflect on the ways in which you and I and local churches can improve our practices. By acknowledging the historical and cultural factors that may hinder effective listening, we can actively work towards creating spaces that foster dialogue, understanding, and empathy. Embracing the importance of listening in the context of faith communities can help us bridge the gap between teachings and lived experiences, creating more inclusive, supportive, and authentic spiritual environments. It might be helpful to spend some time reflecting on the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5-15). What is Jesus teaching you about listening through the metaphor of seeds and soil types? 

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