Crossing the Divides through Active Listening

This is the second in a series of blogs inspired by Pope Francis’ dream that we will learn how to become a church that journeys together, with Christ.  The Pope often calls for us to learn the art of accompaniment.  With all the divisions in our world today, and with our ability to create our own echo chambers where we don’t have to listen to other points of view, accompaniment the way Pope Francis imagines it will not happen.   So how might that become different?   Read on.

Last week I wrote about listening from the heart.  So this post is related to that, but with a slightly different angle: listen with the mind as well as with the heart.  What is mindful listening?  Well, it’s also called active listening and it has as its intention comprehending the meaning of the words being spoken by another in conversation or speech.  Comprehending…understanding.  Active listening has nothing to do with agreement, and everything to do with understanding and so maintaining a deep respect for and connection with the person to whom you are listening.

Before I get to the three skills within active listening (yes, it’s a skill and so CAN be learned by all of us!), I’d like to tip my hand here and share with you why I think this is so important to the formal 3 year synodal process, but also to healing the many divides affecting our lives, our church and our geopolitical landscape.   Why active listening?  Connection.  It maintains a connection grounded in respect, fostered by curiosity and deeply grounded in the reality that it is our very differences that reveal the wonder of creation and of the Creator.  We listen to understand, we deepen our connections to each other whether or not we agree because, to paraphrase the Catholic hymn, “The Prayer of St. Francis”, the way of peace comes when we seek not to be understood, but to understand.  That’s why I think active listening, listening with the mind, listening to understand is critical.

OK…here are three skills that are part of active listening:  comprehending, retaining and responding.[i]

Comprehending:  This involves not just understanding the words as they are being used by the speaker, but also the rest of the meaning being conveyed by posture, gesture, tone of voice, inflection and volume.  Critical here is to ask a lot of questions that reveal to the speaker that you are trying to understand.  Sample questions include:  “What do you mean when you use the word or words ____?”   Your voice got softer and your words slower.  Help me understand why?”  “Can you say some more about _____ so I can understand better?”  “This seems to be very important to you.  Can you tell me why that is so?”  Two elements of self-discipline are critical as the active listener:  focus on the speaker, and tame your own intellectual/emotional/spiritual responses.  You are trying to give the other person the gift of being heard and understood.  Keep it about that!

Retaining:  Human beings know we were understood when the listener retains at least some of what we said, and retains it in the way we intended.  So what helps us retain what the other person is saying?  Our brains actually remember and think better in pictures.  So, as we listen, we create pictures around what the other person is saying.  Place them in the location (and the conversation as well), add the other characters, identify the emotions.  All of this helps our brains retain what we are listening to and so be able to make reference to this at a later date.  When we do that, a speaker feels heard, validated, seen and therefore honored and connected to us. 

Responding:  Here’s where it gets tough for so many of us trying to actively listen.  We want to respond from our cache of stories and experiences, believing that we foster connection when we can relate to what someone else said from our own stories.  But all too often it becomes about us, and the speaker is now asked to become the active listener as we take the floor.  Their message feels lost, obscured, overtaken.  They do not feel connected to us because we care to understand them.  They feel as if we were just patiently waiting to be heard ourselves.  So how to respond so that the other person feels understood, and so that the connection is grounded in mutual understanding?  Respond by re-stating what we heard them say, and ask them to let us know if we understood them, and/or to help us if we missed their point(s).  This lets them know we are working to understand them and to stay connected to them until they feel understood.  This also reinforces their messages and so helps our retention.

Active listening…listening with the mind goes along with listening with heart.  Pope Francis believes this kind of listening is key to journeying together as the people of God.  It’s key to how the Church is the Church in the third millennium.  So I’m going to be practicing this, at home and in other places, to build (and re-build) connections, to make space for other stories, and to wait to see what the Spirit creates when all of these stories come together!  Join me?


[i] Thanks to Jennifer’s post on her blog contentmentquesting.com.  “Active Listening Strategies to Help you Really Connect with Other People.”  https://contentmentquesting.com/active-listening-strategies-help-really-connect-people/  Accessed 10/27/21




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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin. 

What is a Synod?

Our Church is about to embark on something ancient.  However, it will feel “new” to many of us. It begins on 10/9-10, 2021 in Rome