Are you listening to me?

22 Jul

Many a parent or partner has uttered those words: Are you listening to me? The frustration inherent in the question reflects the fact that we can be ‘hearing’ what someone says but not really listening. In the political arena it is often observed that governments or other groups may be sending out their message but the people have stopped listening.

I have long believed that listening is one of the scarcest commodities in our society. It is a strange paradox that we devote so much time to teaching our children to talk and to express themselves well, then to write—in all the ways we now write—but so little time and effort is given to teaching people to listen.

To listen requires quite different skills and attitudes. It’s much more than being  quiet. People can be quite silent but not listening at all. Often when people are not speaking, in a conversation or discussion, they are not listening to others but rather focussing on what they want to say next.

Listening is first of all an attitude, before it is an activity. It presupposes attention, and that in turn, as someone has said, requires respect. I think that often when someone says, ‘Are you listening to me?’ they are sensing that the attention and respect they’d hope to be receiving are not there. It would be interesting then to consider how that might change or come about. Probably not by yelling, ‘Are you listening to me?’

In the Gospels, we read that a number of times Jesus suggested, ‘Listen, those of you who have ears to hear.’ That’s an interesting challenge. The implication is that we have ears and thus the capacity to listen, but we can make a choice about whether we do so or not.

Recently I’ve encountered several short prayers on the theme of listening. The significant thing here is that these words are offered as a way of going beyond themselves. Too much prayer, and too much of what passes for religion, is full of words. These prayers are brief, and evocative, and seek to pass beyond words to listening. They are an invitation to form a habit (which means, literally, somewhere to live). They are an invitation to live as one with enough respect and love to pay attention: to others, to the world around us, and to God. It is a great delight to recognize that before the Church invented ‘Evensong’ the world offers us an evensong. I used to have to stop at a particular intersection on my way home where (at that time of the evening) hundreds of birds were singing in their utterly unself-conscious joy and praise. Listen to it, anytime!

Ted Loder has written, in his Geurillas of Grace,

O Holy One,

I hear and say so many words,

yet yours is the word I need.

Speak now, and help me listen;

and if what I hear is silence,

let it quiet me,

let it disturb me,

let it touch my need,

let it break my pride,

let it shrink my certainties,

let it enlarge my wonder.

That’s worth holding onto, listening to, day upon day!

Then, from the website offering Celtic prayers, one from ‘J Birch’ that evokes the same stance of listening, waiting, respecting … again, inviting us into a moment, any moment, this moment, the moment, of listening.

We listen, in the stillness of our hearts

and in this precious moment;

We listen, to the murmur of the world,

beyond these walls;

We listen,

prayerfully for the gentle whisper of your call;

We listen, in the stillness of our hearts

and in this precious moment;

We listen.


I am convinced that listening is one of the few means by which we can change the world. Like art, it is seen as weak, or fragile and powerless. Actually, listening to someone can transform a situation, change relationships, resolve alienation. And contrary to that popular idea, to listen requires great strength at times, presence and effort, and a faith in oneself as a listener, and in the possibility of listening, that form of love and respect that can indeed reach across hurts and resentments, towards relationship, mutuality, and new relationship.

Are you listening to me? Am I listening to me?

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