I have mentioned in several posts recently that I am enrolled into a program called Audire. This is a three year program which will give me certification as a spiritual director. In the context of the Audire program, spiritual direction is intended as a “being a companion” to someone as they explore where they are at in their relationship to whatever God they believe in. Or, if the person does not yet believe in God, walking with them as they explore what this may mean for them and allow them a safe place to explore the possibility of a spiritual life.
One of the skills that is considered to be of prime importance in this training is the art of listening. As I worked and trained with the CREDO retreat process in the US Navy between the years of 1984 to 2003, the skill of listening was also considered to be the most important skill that we needed to cultivate. Most of the yearly training weekends that I spent with CREDO were focused on activities that helped us to hone this particular skill.
On my refrigerator door at home I have a quotation held in place with a magnet that says something like: “The greatest gift we can offer another is the gift of rapt attention.” I’m away from home right now so cannot verify the exact wording nor do I remember the author of the quotation. Just a few days ago, in one of my morning reflections, I read the following quotation by Dr. Joyce Brothers: “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.”
Going back to the first quotation, I checked out the dictionary meaning of the word “rapt”. This is what I found:
– completely engrossed: involved in, fascinated by, or concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else.
– deeply engrossed or absorbed
– blissfully happy: showing or suggesting deep emotions
– transported with emotion
I think the first two definitions are probably the most significant with regards the skill of listening to another, although showing that I am “blissfully happy” or “transported with emotion” as I listen to another in a totally focused way is not so bad either! It would certainly get across the message to them that I am paying complete attention to them and what they are saying.
Listening is just one component of the whole skill of good communication. It is said that when we are communicating with another person several messages are being given and received:
– the message of the words that we are actually saying
– the message that we think we are conveying with the words that we are saying
– the message that the other person hears from the words that we are saying
– the message that the other person then “decodes” from the words that we are saying
– the message that the other person sends back to us in response to the words we are saying
– the message that the other person thinks he has conveyed with the words he has said
– the message that we hear in the words from the other person
– the message that we think we understood (decoded) from the words the other person said.
There may be a few more variables going on at the time which could depend on the parties’ humor, body language, level of distraction, and others!! Is it any wonder that “bad communication” is probably the single most contributing factor to broken relations on the intimate level and wars on the international level?
So, in order to be a “good” listener I need to come to the table in a very specific way in order to offer that “rapt attention” to the other person. Here are some of the tools that I have learned, and continue to hear impressed, in order to be a good listener.
– Look directly at the speaker
– make sure body posture is open and inviting
– clear the mind of other thoughts
– avoid external distractions
– suspend internal judgment
– don’t be mentally preparing a response
– acknowledge that you are hearing by nodding the head or saying “uh huh” from time to time
When the other person stops speaking:
– wait for a few moments and then check with them that they have said all they wanted/needed to say for the moment
– if you are confused about something they said, ask for clarification
– reflect back, summarize what they have said to show them that you have truly been listening
– only then offer honest feedback, being respectful of the other and stating clearly that these are your thoughts and/or feelings in response to what you have
As can be seen, it is not easy to be a “rapt listener” but with a little thought and some willingness to get out of self, we can become the skillful listener that is needed in true communication with another.
Today we celebrated yet another funeral in my parish. I use the word celebrate because in the Catholic faith we chose to say a Mass of the Resurrection in celebration of the deceased being resurrected into new life with Christ.
I am a member of the Ministry of Consolation and so I find myself attending more funerals than the average person. As part of our ministry we prepare the church for viewing services and vigils which usually take place the day before the funeral Mass, and then for the Mass itself. We are on hand to greet family and friends of the deceased as they come to the services and to be of any assistance to them or the priest.
As I stood in the church narthex this morning greeting everyone, I noticed a mother and her son come in to join those already present. The young man carried himself with great care and dignity. He wore a uniform of sorts, some kind of cadet perhaps. His posture was perfect, and even though he walked with a slight limp, he carried himself “tall”. I found out later his name was Teddy.
In all the time they were in the narthex before Mass started he stood quietly by his mother’s side. Every once in a while they would look at each other and smile. I could not help but notice that it was more than just a smile. It was a communication. In that one act they seemed to speak volumes to each other.
Close by them stood another couple with a small girl of about three years old in a stroller. Teddy noticed the girl and stood staring at her as though mesmerized. After some moments, his mother touched him gently on the arm and he looked at her with a huge smile. He then turned his attention back to the girl for a few more moments before turning once more, the smile still upon his face, to gaze intently, lovingly into his mother’s eyes. Again I had the feeling of a long, silent communication between them.
It was time for Mass. We discreetly directed everyone into the church and Mass began. The ritual was beautiful, the songs and readings perfectly chosen for the occasion. Then came the moment for Communion and once again Teddy and his mother took front and center stage of my attention.
I had already received Communion and had just returned to my seat to pray when I looked up to see them returning down the aisle. As before, I noticed how tall and straight Teddy walked. His mother walked beside him and, with one hand resting lightly in the center of his back, seemed to gently guide him. But more than guiding, it appeared to be a sign of reassurance.
It seemed to me that Teddy was totally focused in the moment. He had just received Communion and his hands were folded in front of him in a gesture of quiet reverence. Yet as they walked together I noticed that with a slight movement of his head he seemed to keep his mother in his peripheral vision.
Once back in their pew, they knelt side by side. It looked as though it was difficult for Teddy to kneel, perhaps something to do with that limp. Then he slightly turned his head to his mother and waited. I don’t know how I knew he was waiting, nor did I know what he was waiting for. As I watched, his mother leaned in to him and brought her lips to his cheek in close proximity to his ear.
As if on cue, Teddy inclined his head just fractionally in her direction and she began to speak to him. In that moment I thought that perhaps she was saying some prayers for him, or perhaps suggesting some prayers that he might like to say. No matter what, the moment was precious, just utterly precious, and I felt humbled to have been part of a very intimate act between them.
What made this Mother’s and son’s love so precious and special? Teddy is a Downs Syndrome child. He is now twenty six years old. The unconditional love that flowed so freely between them was palpable. I felt privileged to see the warm compassion that this mother showed her special child. As I was allowed into their space and allowed to share their beautiful relationship,I felt as though I been given a priceless gift.