This past week we had a Compassionate Listening workshop that Rev. Alison Hendley led. We offered it because so many of you, in response to what we’ve learned about adverse childhood experiences and trauma, expressed that you wanted some resources of how to be a good listener. In the reading from Job just now, you heard two men who were talking past each other. You heard the repeated words, “Listen to me. Be silent. I will tell you...” Each man is trying desperately to be heard by the other one, and neither of them is listening to the other. If we go back a few chapters, however, we get just a glimpse of something entirely different. At the very beginning of Job’s struggles, when he has lost everything in his life, his friends actually do something quite amazing:
“When Job’s friends saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Wow. What great friends. They show up for him in his time of need; they express anger and grief at his loss; and then they sit with him where he’s at—on the ground— for an entire week without saying a word.
Annie Meehan, an author and speaker, tells a similar story. She was having one of the worst days of her life. Everything kept going wrong from work to home, so she was sitting on her couch in her bathrobe on a Friday night despairing, when her teenage daughter came home with her friends. They walked right into the living room, having gotten snacks in the kitchen, and knew something was wrong when they saw her, because normally Annie is very bubbly and talkative. So they asked her about it. She told them what was wrong, that she needed a night to cry and release her stress, and that tomorrow she’d figure something else out. The girls listened well and then invited her to go out with them in an attempt to cheer her up. She laughed, made a nod at her bathrobe, told them that sounded fun but she really didn’t have the energy to get all “dolled up” to go out. They then retreated to the upstairs after expressing the usual sorrys and empathetic words, and Annie assumed they were going to go hang out for awhile before going out. A few minutes later, however, the young women came downstairs and told her they were ready. They had changed out of their usual going out clothes and instead were all dressed in pajama pants and bathrobes. “Come on!” they said to Annie, “we’re going out and we’re taking you with us.”
Those young women knew Annie well enough to offer her what she needed. They listened to her, they realized what would cheer her up, and then they took away the barrier that was going to keep Annie in the house feeling miserable. They didn’t solve any of her problems, but by hearing her story and responding to her in the ways she desired, they were part of her healing.
Job’s friends have this opportunity as well. And they do really well for those two verses. They do really well for the first seven days. Unfortunately, then they stop doing well. Once Job opens his mouth to complain and rant and grieve out loud and despair about all that he has lost, his friends feel the need to open their mouths too. And when they do, they offer Job all of the things he does not need— all of the things that make it so that Job doesn’t feel listened to at all.
Last Tuesday as Alison led the Compassionate Listening workshop she started by giving us examples of what not to do:
The first, is to offer people platitudes. I’m sure many of you have had this happen to you— you share something awful that’s happening in your life and then someone gives you a saying that is supposed to address your pain but instead makes you feel worse. Unfortunately, as Christians, we have several of these: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Or “God helps those who help themselves.” It might even be as simple as, “Don’t worry, it’ll get better.” All of these are well-intentioned things to say, but usually we say them because we’re uncomfortable with the hurt that someone else is feeling. We want it to stop. So in our discomfort, we say something that shuts down the conversation and makes the person feel like they haven’t been heard at all. It’s a good way to end a conversation if you want it to be over, I suppose, but it’s not a good way to help someone feel that you are listening to them.
The second thing that we might fall into doing, is offering our own story. This is a perfectly natural thing to do, because we want to connect with people, but it’s not helpful if we want to actually listen. Talk to anyone who has faced cancer, and most likely they will tell you about all the people who, in hearing about their diagnosis, launched into stories about an uncle or cousin or friend or whomever who has struggled with that same kind of cancer. We have all done this. But when we open our mouths to share our story, especially if it’s before the other person is finished telling their story, it only gives them the message that we’re not really interested in knowing how they are doing— hearing how what they are going through is unique to them.
And the third thing that I know I’m working on because I do this all the time, especially with my kids, is trying to fix what’s wrong. Job’s friends are great at this. They offer him all kinds of advice about why these things have been happening to him, including that it is entirely his fault for having made God mad, and he should repent and then God will bless him again. Attempting to fix people’s problems is not helpful if you actually want to hear them and if you want them to feel heard. A lot of people can figure out on their own what they need, and will do a much better job of it, if we can listen to them long enough to give them space to figure it out.
Why do we do all these things that are unhelpful? Because our brains are wired to create stories, and so we are constantly creating stories about what we are hearing. In order to listen well, we have to consciously set aside this story-making and focus instead on what we are hearing.
I first learned of this concept of creating stories from a book called, “Crucial Conversations.” It talks about how it is that in the split second after we have heard someone say something— and it can be a something as simple as “Hello,” we have created a story about them. Creating stories gives us a place to put that person in our minds, and the story we tell, then instructs us on how to respond. In the recent Brene Brown special on Netflix, she tells the story of going swimming with her husband. They got to the middle of the lake and she looked over, with her heart full of emotion, and said to him, “I feel really connected to you right now. I’m glad we’re swimming together.” And he looked up and said, “Yeah, the water’s good.” That wasn’t the response she was hoping for, so after they got to the other side and had started back across the lake she tried again and said the same thing, “I’m really loving swimming with you. I feel really close to you right now.” And again he responded with, “Yeah, the water’s great.” So by the time they got back to the shore, Brene Brown was furious. She was trying to connect and she couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t say something kind to her. She had made up a story in her head of all the things that could be going wrong, and she even confessed of having the thought that if he was going to tell her they were getting a divorce, he better not do it when she had a swimsuit on. It turned out that he had been counting his strokes and had not heard a word she said. He had been engaged in his own story because the night before he’d dreamt that his kids were drowning in that very lake. So between the story he kept telling himself and the story she kept telling herself, they were missing each other completely. Unless they had taken the time to set aside the stories that were playing in their heads, they would’ve never found that out.
This is why I always have pre-marital couples practice active listening. It seems to me the more we know someone, sometimes the harder it is to listen to them. We get to where we think we know what someone else is thinking even before they open their mouths. And of course we’re highly emotionally invested in it. I want my children to be okay— so sometimes I tell them that they’re okay even though they may need more time or space to become okay. I want my friend to not have to face cancer so I tell him that story of someone I know who had it and got through it just fine, ignoring his fears and concerns because my own fears and concerns are so great. I want to think that I know what my husband is thinking because there’s a crazy societal idea that this would make me a great wife since we’ve been married for twenty years. But when I stop myself from assuming things, our conversations go much better. When I remember that I’m a different person now, twenty years later; and so is he, then I am freed up to listen differently. Recognizing the stories we make up in our heads, helps us to be able to set them aside and listen well enough to actually hear the people around us. To not ignore the stories we would rather not hear and therefore silence vulnerable voices. And from everything we’re learning about trauma, it is in finding people who can actually hear our stories that we can begin to heal. This is true not just of major trauma, but of everything in our lives that doesn’t go as we had expected or wanted it to. We can begin healing when we are listened to.
When we get curious about how someone else is really experiencing the world, and are willing to sit with them in that space, we are offering a healing place for them to be able to be heard and to be able to get to a healthy place over time.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus meets a woman at a well. It’s as simple as that— they both need water. But what happens in this exchange, is that the woman feels heard— perhaps for the first time in her life. She goes back to her village and tells them all that Jesus knew everything that ever happened to her. When I read their dialogue, that is not what I hear at all; but it seems to me that this is truly how she felt. By being heard in an area of her life where she most likely was experiencing great trauma— these five marriages— where there would have been pain because of death or abandonment; grief; perhaps abuse; and a whole myriad of other emotions— when Jesus hears this part of her story, she feels that he has really heard her. And by offering a listening ear, he offers her the very living water that he is telling her about.
Listening changes lives. Listening changes relationships. Listening can offer the first steps of healing not only for individuals, but for our world. It is worth our time, as people who follow Jesus, who are committed to putting love first in our lives, to listen to one another as Jesus listened. Healing starts with hearing because people feel loved when they are truly listened to. Listening is what love looks like.