Really Listening

Seems to be a theme in my life these days - learning to listen well. Even when we do this well, we can always learn to listen better.  I have written about learning to be present in the moment in other posts but specifically I want to explore the aspect of listening.

Listening, truly listening and being present to other people and actually hearing what they are trying to say is increasingly difficult in a very noisy world.  Not only is it noisy, specific noises constantly compete for our attention.  This forces us into a situation where we live in a constant posture of multi-tasking which inhibits our listening and our ability to do any of the many things we may be doing at once - well.

According to recent research, cognitive scientist Dr. David E. Mayer suggests that multi-tasking actually slows us down not speeds us up and increases the likelihood of making mistakes.  The emerging research indicates we perform better - quantitatively and qualitatively - when we actually focus on one thing at a time.

In this light, there are a number of new syndromes emerging to describe the unhealthy multi-tasking.  Continuous  Partial Attention (CPA) describes how people continue to text-message, facebook, and email while supposedly in a conversation with another person.  Surfer Voice is the tone we take while on the phone with another person and still continuing to surf the net, read and reply to emails.   The tell-tale sign is the clack, clack, clack of the keyboard in the background. This seems so ironic because these tools all came with grand promises of helping us be better connected with people and more productive.

To learn to truly listen we need to cultivate three specific disciplines:

  • Cultivating silence is creating space in your day when you can be quiet.  Turn off the TV, radio, the ipod, and the phone.  Find a place where you escape the bombardment of noise demanding your attention.  Some ambient noise is unavoidable but find ways to be quiet.   Silence is a refreshing and scientifically proven way to reset your mind. It allows all the external stimulation to be reduced thus giving your mind a break.  In what seems counter-intuitive, in silence we develop our capacity to listen, to really hear.
  • Pausing to reflect is a great way to stop and process what is happening in our day, in our life.  The country music band Alabama wrote “I’m in a hurry to get things done. I rush and rush until life’s no fun...”  Taking time to pause in our busy day affords us the opportunity to respond thoughtfully to the events in our day, to think about our actions, words and emotions.  It also affords us the opportunity to reflect upon how God was and is present in our day.  I have personally found the Examen a wonderful way to do this.  The Examen is an ancient Christian practice developed by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
  • Becoming present in the moment is the discipline of living in the moment - not in the past nor future but the right now.  Being aware and fully attentive to the people and situations in front of us right now.  It allows us to experience life in a more full, rich and deliberate way.  It is a deliberate choice to set aside the demands of the many things clamouring for our attention and focus on the one thing that is immediately before us. This  may not be as easy as it sounds because, for many of us, we have been conditioned to be just the opposite.   “Idle hands are the devils workshop” and a good puritan work ethic drive us along in the mantra of the super-size me, production is good, more production is better!  It is a well-established fact that workaholism is alive and well in Evangelical Christianity.  Regardless, this absent presence is a symptom of greater disconnection.  

I encourage and equip my clients to cultivate these disciplines in deliberate, daily way.  I also have found these disciplines increase the qualitative aspects of my life.  There is no shortage of volume of things coming at me but to be able to experience many of them in a deeper way, to discover God in and through my day and to savour life instead of rush through it.


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