"Listening," says servant-scholar Henri Nouwen, "is a form of spiritual hospitality."* Listening has never been one of my strengths. I spent much of my childhood alone, amusing myself during my parents' many meetings and events, or sitting in classrooms where I mastered a concept long before the teacher had finished explaining it. Consequently, I learned to read, to ponder, to make lists, to doodle, and to work ahead, but not to attend closely to the words around me.
More problematically, I have a wicked instinct for turning a everything to myself. I leave many conversations angry with myself for telling one of my own stories when I should have asked a question, annoyed that I missed a chance to listen to someone I want to know better. Sometimes a story is the beautiful and best way to talk with someone, but too often I speak only because I want to make a good impression or draw out laughter or remind everyone, "This is me. I am here. You should care."
For Lent several years ago, I fasted from sharing my own stories, opinions, or feelings unless someone directly asked me about them. I committed to asking questions, rather than telling, in my conversations with others.
This fast changed not merely my language, but my attitudes and postures toward others. When telling my own story was not a possibility, I grew more careful and patient, no longer simply waiting for a gap into which I could insert my own tale. I found myself studying the faces of my friends, pondering how much untold joy, sorrow, hope, and uncertainty could lie behind the most familiar eyes.
Lent has given way to Easter, yet moving into my new house has renewed my desire to listen well. At home, I know who I am. At home, I choose the pictures on the wall and I shape the bread on the table, so I have no need to prove myself. I am present and secure, and that security allows me to forget myself. To ask you questions. To smile in silence and notice the color of your eyes. To listen.
If you come to my house and I spend our time talking only about myself, then I have not welcomed you. I have put myself on display, perhaps, but I have not invited you to make this place your home. When you speak and stay, however, you take ownership of this house with me -- if only for an hour, you belong in that chair by the window or at this place at the table.
Since Friday alone, I have had nearly twenty different friends and students come here for a meal or a moment, and I have tried very hard to listen to them. Now when I walk through my dining room, my kitchen, or my yard, I hear their voices. Reminding me to listen, they are well come.
Do you listen well? What circumstances or practices help you become a better listener? How do you know when someone is listening to you?
* from Bread for the Journey