Listening from Inside

Part of what I do as my day job, when I’m not working on my DProf, is teaching listening skills.  I do this with a variety of groups: people training to be spiritual directors, members of their parish listening service, deacons in formation, and others.

Sometimes when I tell people I do this they are sceptical. “We can all listen,”  they say, “Why do we need to learn special skills?” But there’s a lot involved in learning to listen – reallylisten – and I’ve recently realised how much I am still learning.

As part of my research I’m working with a small group of people who, like me, are “converts” (as we are sometimes called).  We have all made the journey from another Christian community into the Catholic Church.  In our little group we share our stories, seeking to understand what this transition has meant to each of us, and how others might be helped to grow and flourish in their new home – to be listened to in their turn.

 With the group’s permission I record our conversations, which of course means that afterwards I need to transcribe what I have recorded. The first time I did this I was overwhelmed by what a long and tiring task it was: stopping and starting, and laboriously typing each word.  I decided to try some voice typing software, which I had heard makes the process a lot easier. I soon discovered that the microphone on my laptop doesn’t like recorded voices but needs a living person to speak into it in order to make sense of what is being said. So now I listen to the recording through my headphones and repeat what is said, sentence by sentence, into the microphone.

It’s easier, and a bit quicker, than physically typing, just as I hoped.  But something I couldn’t have hoped for has happened too. As I sit listeningto our conversation and repeating it, this practical method has become a profound spiritual experience. As I repeat the words of each participant I find myself entering their story as I use their words and syntax, sometimes even finding that I am taking on their accent and tone of voice.  I speak out thoughts, feelings and opinions which are not mine, with the emotions of others. I draw breath when they do, I describe vividly events in which I have not participated, and I discover a visceral empathy which awes me with its power.

I am a listener by trade. When I’m not teaching about listening, I’m doing it as a spiritual director, pastoral supervisor and parish faith formator. I could tell you in my sleep, because I’ve said it so many times, that a true conversation only happens when we listen to each other. That is, when we are not distracted by deciding what to say next, how to answer, how best to sound compassionate, how to show the other person we understand. Even, dare I say it, how to win the argument (which is all right, isn’t it, if we’re doing God’s work?) But this feels very different. Perhaps there’s a lot to unlearnin learning listening skills.

One final thought strikes me. Deep, focused listening – simply listening, without my own agenda getting in the way – enables me to see things as the other sees them, and to walk their shoes, as it were. So what would happen if, next time, I reallylisten to the Gospel?

 Antonia Lynn is a DProf student working on ‘Encounter, Conversion, Mission: How the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises could be a useful resource for formation of Ordinariate Catholics as missionary disciples’