When We Are Listened To
The late philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich has said,
“The first duty of love is to listen”.
Psychologists say that deep listening is indistinguishable from love.
We believe deeply that our human need to be listened to is critical and that it is a great act of love when we really listen to one another.
Bartenders have claimed that although customers pay for their drinks, what they are really paying for is someone to listen to them. “Lonely people don’t come to a bar just to drink,” one has said. “They can drink at home and a lot cheaper. They come in to my bar to find someone who will listen to them and usually I’m it.”
We are most blessed when we have a spouse, friend, counselor, pastor or confidante who listens. How fortunate we are to have at least one person who listens – deeper than the words we speak – to the feelings and aspirations and the wildest dreams we have. What a friend! It is pure joy and healing to be listened to.
Do you have someone who listens to you? Someone who really, truly listens? You know when they are interested. They draw you out. They say, “Tell me more.” They ask good questions that encourage thoughtful, deeper answers; answers that are not merely “yes” or “no”. They probe. They are intentional. They help you to feel worthwhile. Like you matter. Like your life and your experiences are important.
The late psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote about the effects of being listened to in his book, Love Against Hate:
“When we are listened to it creates us, makes us unfold and expand … it makes people happy and free when they are listened to.”
We’ve read of a formula of listening well that takes the word E A R S as a guide:
• Let the letter “E” stand for “eye”. We listen best with our eyes. Eye contact is unbeatable. It is a powerful magnet for connecting with people. When one’s eyes say, “You are the most important person in my presence at this moment”, it’s incredible. We listen best with intentional, connected eyes.
• Let “A”, stand for “affection”. We listen best when we communicate love for the speaker. Our love moves us to empathy, which is “to feel with someone, deeply and intimately.” When we sit where he sits, when we feel what she feels, we listen well. When we say to ourselves, “God loves this person and we love him or her, too,” it makes a remarkable difference. We listen best with affection.
• Let “R” stand for “reliable”. Good listeners never break confidence. They are trustworthy. They are reliable. They hold another’s deepest thoughts and feelings as sacred.
• Let “S” stand for “sparing with advice”. People don’t usually seek a cure, but what they seek is to know that someone cares. Good listeners are sparing with advice, with trying to fix another’s problems.
A few years ago this week we met a grieving mother in a coffee shop. We met her just weeks before, where she declared to us:
“The holidays are very hard for me.”
They are hard, we learned, because 13 years earlier her teenage son had died in an auto accident. He left home one evening to be with his friends and he simply never came back. His mother was devastated. She still is.
So, when we found out the date of the anniversary of his death – which is this week – we offered to meet with her on that day. She readily accepted.
With carols playing in the background, with lights illuminating a Christmas tree, as she sat down in the coffee shop, she asked:
“Would you like to see pictures of my son?”
“Of course. We’d be honored to” was our reply.
“No one else wants to see these photos anymore. They think that I should be over his death by now. But it still hurts; it’s still so painful. I can’t simply forget. Thank you for being willing to listen to me, especially today.”
For the next hour or more, we looked at and listened to the story of his young life, captured in dozens of photos and in the longing heart of his mother. We saw him as a little baby. As a boy in his pajamas on Christmas mornings. As a handsome young man just weeks before the tragic accident.
On that afternoon, as the beauty of the season surrounded us, we listened to the plaintive cries and the broken spirit of a mother who still missed, profoundly so, the young son who left far too soon, with so much promise before him. In the midst of the beauty, there was sorrow. As the carols played, there were tears. As the tree lights glowed, there was darkness still descending on her heart.
But we listened and for that afternoon, her heart was comforted. She was reminded that even though we couldn’t fix the fact that her beloved son was gone, we could show her that others cared. Cared about her pain. Cared about his life. Cared about her story of infinite love and of infinite loss.
We all need to be listened to. Whatever it is that needs to be shared deserves an empathetic heart to hold the story tenderly, lovingly, this holiday season and in every season to come.