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How Do We Listen To the “Cries of the Poor”?

by | Aug 12, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 3 comments

Shortly after ordination, I was blessed with an opportunity for special training in what was then called “Marriage and Family Therapy.” I remember how taken I was with the concept of “deep listening” or “listening with the third ear.”  Hearing what people were having trouble expressing

I realized that was the way my high school mentor listened to me. In the spirit of “paying it forward,” that is the way I have tried to listen, not just to couples in distress, but all those I encounter. I have not always succeeded.

Recently Vincentians of the Eastern Province received a questionnaire with some thought-provoking questions about the phenomenon called “racism.” I must admit I found it very stimulating.to look at the array of issues raised.

But I felt something was missing. I finally remembered the term “Whack-a-mole problem solving.” I realized that there were so many interrelated issues.

I finally formulated my question. There is a deeper dimension to each of the issues. Is there an issue common to all of the issues. How do I listen to the cries of the poor? Is my listening superficial? Or deep?

Before I respond, I share some recent thinking on “listening.”

How we listen

False listening. This occurs when a person is pretending to listen but is not hearing anything that is being said. They may nod, smile, and grunt in all the right places, but do not actually take in anything that is said.

Initial listening. Sometimes when we listen, we hear the first few words and then start to think about what we want to say in return. We then look for a point at which we can interrupt. We are also not listening as much as spending more time rehearsing what we are going to say about their initial point.

Partial listening. This is what most of us do most of the time. We listen to the other person with the best of intentions and then become distracted, either by stray thoughts or by something that the other person has said.

Full listening. Here the listener pays close and careful attention to what is being said, seeking carefully to understand the full content that the speaker is attempting to convey.

Deep listening. Beyond the intensity of full listening, you can also reach into a form of listening that not only hears what is said but also seeks to understand the whole person behind the words. (For a more in-depth presentation visit Depth Listening from ChangingMinds.org.) Vincent really heard the deep-down cry.

To listen deeply requires paying attention not just to the words but to understand the whole person.

Before going any further I ask you to think of your own listening patterns. We engage in all of these. But at which level do you listen most frequently?

How do we listen to the cries of the poor today?

Back to my question.

  • How do we listen to the cries of individual poor people we encounter (and how many poor individuals do I encounter?)
  • How do we listen to the cries of the poor clumped together as a whole group of individuals as if they were all the same?

I personally found that when I listen to a poor person, I often do not listen to each one the same way and always at the same level.

I also found that when I think about how I listen to that abstraction called “the poor” I must admit I lose almost entirely a sense of full and deep listening.

P.S. What level of listening do you think the last four Popes meant when they call for a “theology of encounter”? I suspect they are trying to put into words the way Jesus listened to everyone in his day… and to you and me today.

What did you hear in all of this?

This post first appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk.

3 Comments

  1. Dee Mansi

    Interesting layers of listening. What you touched on Fr John in saying “I often do not listen to each one the same and always at the same level” perhaps relates to how we come with our own set of prejudices. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s inevitable. So maybe, before we listen, we admit this, and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Our solidarity with vulnerable people may well benefit.

  2. Paulinah Appiah Antwi

    Thanks for sharing this information. Listening to the poor needs, time, patience, humility, and love. I am generally not a good listener. But, I try to always listen to those that I serve in the community. Sometimes, they are bit demanding. We should all pray that, the Holy spirit gives us the spirit of patience and understanding.

  3. Ross

    Thanks, John, for your on-going challenge, mentoring, articulating for us our experiences and shedding light on them.

    As I try to listen, I quickly got stuck at the level of “initial listening.” The thoughts that came to me are:

    Mentoring is contagious. (“I realized that was the way my high school mentor listened to me. In the spirit of “paying it forward,” that is the way I have tried to listen, not just to couples in distress, but all those I encounter.”)

    Your list of the different ways we listen sends me back to the explanation of the parable of the sower.

    I came to see that I’m quite a ways from “full listening” and “deep listening.” But it also dawned on me not to get disheartened, nor make the good the enemy of the better.

    I also got to understand even better the Thomist principle, “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” I must watch out, then, that I don’t wholly impose on what I hear my own concerns, attitudes or disposition.

    I also thought of something I read from Madeleine L’Engle, which I was able to locate. And she says:

    “It is only when I see hunger or thirst in one human being, it is only when I see discrimination and injustice in all its horrendous particularity as I walk along Broadway, that my very life can be changed. If it was necessary for God to come to us as one of us, then it is only in such particularity that I can understand incarnation.”

    The quote, it seems to me, is another way of expressing your saying, “I also found that when I think about how I listen to that abstraction called ‘the poor’ I must admit I lose almost entirely a sense of full and deep listening.”

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