By H. Frank Showers, Spiritual Director
I have just celebrated and retired from 45 years of being an ordained Lutheran Pastor. When you retire you get the opportunity to review your ministry over the years, your joys and sorrows. As I look back, I have concluded that the one element that made it all possible, or at least resulted in the most memorable accomplishments, was the gift of deep listening.
Deep listening is more than just hearing words in a conversation and then thinking what you will say next. Sometimes in such a practice you even imagine what your answer will be while you listen. The result of that kind of listening barely helps to effectively communicate and limits the relationship you encounter. It ends up that this kind of listening keeps our relationships superficial and not very satisfying.
Deep listening, however, is different. It can bring healing and surprising results for both the speaker and for the listener. It may even seem “magical”. It takes some discipline for the best results. When you learn some skills and are intentional about their use, you can see changes in yourself and in those with whom you relate.
I have had a front row seat to learning about this kind of listening. A while ago I started my pastoral ministry in a church that was very conflicted. Being the new kid on the block I got the projections of anger that arose from the conflict. Also, I must say I had my own mistakes which added to the fires of discontent. It was a painful period in my life, but one with many great lessons.
Before coming to this church, I began meeting with a spiritual director, my first. I began the relationship to discern whether I should leave the church I was serving for another. This would be my second church and why and how to make a move was making me very unsettled. The spiritual director I met with was very wise not so much in what he said but in his skill at listening to me deeply. He was encouraging and affirming as I struggled to discern my future.
After I said yes to the new call, the intensity of disputes began. There was a short honeymoon period but then to make it much worse my dad suddenly died of a heart attack. Tensions on my job and grief in my family were making my life almost unbearable. I look back on these experiences now and conclude I would not have survived if it were not for the support I received from friends and my director’s expertise of deep listening that tended to my wounds.
I was fortunate in that my spiritual director was also a social work counselor. He referred me to a psychotherapist who helped me come back to reality emotionally. This help was timely and curiously enough was also another opportunity for someone else to practice deep listening with me. The results in me were a renewed sense of a whole self that could move on to do healthy ministry and the ability to continue healing from grief. The change in me seemed magical. Again, listening was essential for this turnabout.
Last summer I attended an introductory workshop on compassionate listening. It was conducted by a group you can find at compassionatelistening.org. The purpose of this group is to teach the skill of deep listening. They empower individuals and communities to transform conflict and strengthen cultures to practice peacemaking. They send listeners into conflicted situations throughout the world. Whether it be to the Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East or with Holocaust survivors in Germany as well as local situations in this country, listeners provide a way for a deepening of relationships which can creatively lead to new ways of relating to each other.
It was quite an experience with a gathering of 30 people from all over the country. We met in a community Center in New Hampshire. The persons attending were very intent on trying ways to become better listeners. They came from different occupations and areas of the country. Even though I have been trained in pastoral care for my job as a pastor, I learned a lot not only about how to listen better, but also about just how much I need someone to listen to me. It is very healing. How our families, jobs and civic life could benefit if more persons learned to listen in this way!
At the Claret Center we offer spiritual direction, psychotherapy and body therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and cranial sacral therapy. In all of these practices there are occasions for deep listening to take place. When it does, that which is broken, wounded or perhaps even given up on, can be made whole. When it happens in me and what I have heard from others, the reaction can be one of surprise. Perhaps it is magic!
“Listening has the quality of the wizard’s alchemy. It has the power to melt armor and produce beauty in the midst of hatred.” –Brian Muldoon