On having ears

to hear

Parables for a Listening Process

The 'Listening Process' refers to a major project running within the world wide Anglican church a few years ago to assist mutual support, trust  and understanding across cultural and theological differences. This personal reflection (I am hearing impaired) was provoked by attending a meeting about the 'Listening Process' at which I found it very hard to hear what was going on!

Christian life and ministry is a highly contradictory experience. It is sustained by a strength that is found in weakness. It is a blindness that actually has insight (while those who claim to see are actually blind). It is a wisdom found on the lips of the foolish and life found in the place of death.  And it is founded on an obstacle most stumble over but that is actually the vital cornerstone. A great deal of the work I do involves listening and facilitating groups as they listen to each other. The contradiction in this is that I am hearing impaired. I wear hearing aids and also suffer from tinnitus. It is by definition a flawed enterprise, rarely less than exhausting and that resists any attempts at control. But it somehow works. And in those moments when listening begins to happen – when something is truly heard and received - I need a word like sacrament to describe the gift.

But experience shows that there is very little in the challenge

hearing presents to the deaf that is not true for any committed

to listening.

Spoken and unspoken. It is not only the hearing impaired for whom listening involves careful 'reading'. But research shows that only 7% of communication is verbal. The 93% happens through body language, facial cues, immediate surrounding environment, tone of voice and intuition. It means that long before any words are spoken we are listening and communicating intensely. Furthermore, if what is spoken is contradicted by what is unspoken we will not trust it. This process is the more powerful for being largely unconscious. But it reminds us that listening is a process of incarnation. It is required to be a wholly lived, embodied process. The word must take flesh and dwell among us.

Learning to listen. One in six people in the UK have significant hearing loss and/or tinnitus. And this is increasing. There is irony in this. Our culture has never had such sophisticated communication technology, but we are getting deafer as a nation. We are overwhelmed with the task of hearing at all.  We live with high levels of verbal tinnitus. For the hearing impaired hearing aids are supposed to help. But when you are fitted with hearing aids you don't just hear what you want or need to hear more loudly. Everything is louder. You have to learn to hear over again. You have to learn to select, discriminate and filter. Volume is not the same as clarity. Perhaps any listening process will start with this sense of overwhelming.

All listening involves learning to distinguish noise from signal.

Listening as gift.  In clergy leadership courses I am involved with the evaluation forms always rate one part of the course higher than anything else. It is the small group times - twice a day through the programs. In these groups each person is offered the gift of a time of being listened to. They can share whatever they choose. That these times often feel awkward to start with is a measure of how rarely church leaders experience the gift of a non-agenda-ed attentive listening splace that is just for them. That they rate it so highly at the end expresses what a fundamental need the listening gift addresses. We all need to be heard.

The process is itself transformative.

Listening as mystery. There is a particular vulnerability to being hearing impaired. It is a hidden loss – unlike blindness or other physical impairment for example. Not hearing is easily mistaken for lack of interest (or even lack of intelligence). And what if I didn't know something was being said at all? You don't know what you don't know. If I have asked for something to be repeated I at least knew there was something I probably needed to hear. But I missed an event the other day I didn't know existed. I hadn't heard something in a meeting six months ago. The consequence of not hearing may not be immediately apparent and the effect of it may only be apparent indirectly but with important outcomes. So real listening is a vulnerable and tentative process. It will always need to clarify and to check understanding. It enters each encounter with a reverent agnosticism. We do not know what we do not know.

Listening between the lines.  I need subtitles for television and films. They are a mixed blessing. They both reveal and conceal. They give me the words but separate them from the speaker. I miss the cues and the slant of the voice. And when I am reading subtitles I am not facing the person. Subtitles need a health warning. They de-personalise.

In the listening process 'subtitles' symbolise any way in which a script overlays a face.

We all listen with subtitles actually - in the sense that we never meet each other 'value free', unfiltered through preconceived understandings that effectively print what who we are as surely as words across a TV screen. (My clearest example of this was watching an English film in a Jerusalem cinema that came with French, Hebrew and Arabic subtitles. There was hardly any room to see the actual film at all).

Of course we all need subtitles – tools that help us begin to hear and receive what we could not otherwise understand. But when they obscure the actual meeting, overprinting a living face and claiming to interpret it, subtitles may simply be reinforcing our prejudices and misconceptions and real listening is not possible. They are never a short cut to understanding

Subtitles can never replace a face.

Listening as metanoia. Hearing impaired people know better than most that all real listening is intentional. There is no such thing as casual listening for deaf people. It must be deliberate. As far as possible where and when it happens needs planning. Listening needs a face to see and lips to read and a supporting environment. It requires a turning towards each other. And social experience of the hearing impaired shows we do not find this easy at all.  It is revealing how much communication is offered indirectly and even concealed.

The biblical word for this is 'turning' – metanoia. It also translates as 'repenting'. And that is not inappropriate for a listening process will reveal just how much we hide from each other. 'Turning' is a core movement in the story of our saving and reconciling. The New Testament speaks of God's turning his face to us in Christ - we turning to Him with unveiled faces (2Cor3-4). It is always a mutual movement of profound love and vulnerability.

Christianity is a religion of faces.