Listening as Peace-Making by Krista Maroni

To start our time together, I would like us each to take a moment to consider conversations we have had in the past. Recall a moment when you were trying to share something important but you knew the other person was not listening. It seemed like the person on the receiving end of your story did not understand you. Ponder this for a moment.

I will not ask you to share those stories, but they are important for our comparison. Now consider a time when you felt heard. When you knew the person receiving your story was really listening.

How did you know they were listening? How did it feel to be heard?

 In second Corinthians, Paul explains that part of our new creation in Christ is that we are now ministers of reconciliation. This is perhaps the greatest appeal of the Christian life to me, that we are called to be active-peacemakers in the world. It is the aspect of the Friends tradition that most pulled me in when I was 19 and searching for a relationship with both Church and God that resonated with this call to peacemaking I felt.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20:   18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making God’s appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

In wanting to take this call of reconciliation seriously, I want to understand it. I want to know what it takes to start the process of reconciliation between individuals and groups. I think this reconciliation gives space and motivation for people to reconcile themselves to God.

What I have learned through studying conflict resolution is that the foundation of reconciliation is listening to each other. This month I spent 32 hours over two weekends in an advanced mediation class. The entire method is asking clarifying questions, repeating what the parties say and summarizing until both sides start to hear each other. We were not allowed to do anything else. No advice giving, no suggestions, no affirmations, nothing. It is called transformational mediation and the goal is to remain invisible. If I do my job well as a mediator, I am invisible because the parties are listening to each other.

In my first counseling class in college, the only class Jon and I took together, we read Michael Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening. I read this quote to my student leaders every year.

Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire and judgement – and, for a few moments at least, existing for the other person. Michael P. Nichols

True listening is exhausting. So exhausting that I will only plan three individual meetings a day with students, because if I add a fourth within those eight hours, I cannot actually listen to them. I do not have the mental energy to fight off distraction, to remove my self-interest and to focus on hearing what the student has to say. If I am truly listening to someone, I do not exist for myself.

I am not speaking of every conversation I have, I am not talking about every dinnertime chat or phone call to a friend. What I mean is when I know someone needs to be heard. When someone says, “I need to talk. I need to process this.” Or when I know someone just received challenging news or experienced a personal failure. Those are the moments I believe listening needs to be selfless.

This selfless listening is active listening. Listening that takes work. The best way to listen to someone is to employ a few simple tools.

  1. Repeat what you hear. It is robotic and tedious, but effective. When someone says, “Yesterday I argued with my mom about how much money I owe her.” You respond with “so you’re in an argument with your mom about how much money you owe her.” This feels redundant but this is how you know you are paying attention. If you can do this consistently in a conversation, you actually have to intently follow the words being spoken to you. Your mind cannot be drifting to the next thing to say.
  2. Ask clarifying questions. To understand someone’s story, you must demonstrate curiosity. Open-ended questions that bring more understanding to what someone ALREADY SAID, not to what you assume they have said. The best way to do this is avoid yes and no questions. Ideally, a question would have specific words repeated or a synthesis of what someone has said. “I noticed you said frustrated few times. What did you find most frustrating about your situation?” This type of question demonstrates that you were paying attention and that you are curious about their full experience.
  3. Pay attention to nonverbals and affirm emotional responses. When someone is displaying emotions, addressing this is helpful. Pay attention to the whole person. “You seem nervous to tell me this. I notice you tear up when you talk about your friend. Wow this seems like it was really hard for you.” These observations do not impose your own judgment or assumption, they just acknowledge how someone feels and bring that into your understanding.

Knowing what you should be doing is helpful. Perhaps more helpful is knowing what to avoid. I refer to these as Pink Flags. They are not red flags, but not quite white.

  1. Giving advice. Advice is best received when it is asked for, and especially the first time you hear a story it is important to really understand it. Ironically, good listening will often be enough for a person to understand more of what they want to do next, no advice needed.
  2. Relating a story to yourself. When someone shares something that happens to him or her, it is tempting to try to understand his or her experience through a similar one you have had or someone close to you has had. “That’s hard, when MY mother was diagnosed with cancer, this is how I coped…” but this is not listening. This takes the focus of the story from the person sharing and puts it back on you as the listener. This is natural but not usually helpful. Put this in the advice category and wait until someone asks if you have been through this experience before you share.
  3. Filling the silence. Even as a Quaker, silence can feel awkward. My temptation is to fill it. When you feel the need to interject with a thought or idea, try to give someone 30 seconds of silence. This silence is gold for those people who need a little more time to form their thoughts. Often we are not listened to well and when we actually find someone willing to do the work of listening, it takes time to share all we need to.

From my perspective, active listening might just solve all of our problems. Conflict exists, but when we stop to understand a person’s story, it makes a huge difference in how we interact moving forward. When I take the time to listen to a student, hear their experience, their perspectives and what they are learning about themselves, they are more willing to respond well to critical feedback I give them. They are more willing to be corrected. It is easy to dismiss someone who does not listen to you, much harder to ignore someone who has put energy into understanding you.

When I think of Christ blessing the peacemakers, I picture great listeners. Listeners who understand people so well that they can enact change because they get it. They have willing followers because people feel understood.

May we be those listeners. May we be peacemakers. I’ll leave us with Michael Nichols’ quote.

Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire and judgement – and, for a few moments at least, existing for the other person.                                    –Michael P. Nichols

Consider what it means for you as a listener. How can we listen to those around us in an effort to be active peacemakers?

 

This message by Krista Maroni was given at Spokane Friends Church on 13 February 2019.

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