I remember being selected for an exercise on active listening while I was in seminary — trust me, I did not volunteer. If you know me, you know I would not volunteer to sit in front of 60 classmates and talk about myself. But nonetheless I ended up “on display” (as my sister would say). I don’t remember what the professor asked me to talk about, but her role was to practice active listening. She kept repeating what I had said back to me, to which I kept responding, “Right… I just said that.” We would learn later on that repeating is a technique used in active listening. Only, just repeating is clearly not listening. I was more annoyed than validated when this professor kept echoing my words. If we are simply looking for echoes, we would all just buy parrots.
Of course, active listening is more than repeating. It is a technique designed to help us listen more engagingly and paraphrasing, not repeating, is encouraged. But the issue, when it comes to listening, is that it has to be more than a technique to be meaningful. I would argue that you can’t fake truly listening to someone. And perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, is so compelling.
There was a really beautiful moment in a recent episode of the TV show “This Is Us” when Randall, a main character, makes the decision to attend an adoption support group. Before he goes, his wife Beth reminds him to do some listening too. Randall is known for eloquent speeches and deep thoughts, but Beth senses he needs to just listen. The scene opens with another participant being given permission to share, and then a few others. When the group leader decides it is Randall’s turn to share, he responds with, “Would it be all right if I just keep listening for a little while?” Of course, the answer is yes.
Have you ever asked that question? Would it be all right if I just keep listening for a little while? I think our Creator asks us that daily. We call out to God for answers, and God petitions us to listen. We even demand that God “give us a sign” or “show us the way,” and the Almighty keeps listening.
I have been blessed with some great listeners in my life. When I need to talk, I know they will really listen – not the kind of listening where they hear my words and respond with an in-kind story about them, not the kind of “first date” listening where they robotically ask probing questions (if you’ve ever been single, you know this is a thing), not the kind of listening that has a time limit on it before they “need to get going” or get their phone out and scroll – the kind of listening where the silence compels me even when my mind wants to hold back from sharing. I have some great listeners in my life, but who do I listen to? Who would call me a great listener? Am I someone’s first choice listener?
The world is noisy. Even if you live by yourself or work alone from home, the world perpetuates noise. God’s gift to us, so often, is to perpetuate silence, stillness, pause. And we so often push back and try to press God for a response. In that active listening exercise in seminary, my soul felt pressed in upon by the constant responses. Authentic listening is the antithesis of active response, but the active piece of “active listening” is still there.
What we so often fail to recognize is that God listening to us is not God taking a break or doing nothing; God is at work in the listening. True, authentic listening engages the heart. When you truly listen to someone, their life becomes a part of you. You may even feel compelled to share their story — because in a way, it becomes your story too. When God listens, God is (Emmanuel) with us. God is not asleep or out to lunch or on vacation, God is with us. I can’t help but think of how much more present God would be in our communities if we were with listening with one another. If we, just once, were brave enough, when it was our turn to respond, with that question: Would it be all right if I just keep listening for a little while? And then, if we truly did listen as our response.