Listeners are memorable. When something we say is truly heard, those moments stay with us. We remember them. We remember the person who sat and heard our story, and didn't rush to tell us one of their own. We remember the time we talked about something that confused us, and the way the listener asked questions without judgement. We remember the way their quiet attention became like steps on a staircase that led us to the answers. We remember the time we asked for help, and it turned out that being heard was part of that help – a part we didn't even know we needed.
At I Am Second, we believe in the power words. We use them to tell our stories and to talk about what matters to us. But, we also know that if we want our words to be heard, we need to make sure we are also listening. We believe what theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: "without listening, speaking no longer heals."
The truth is, listening is hard. We remember the moments we felt truly heard because they are so much more rare than they should be. Here's a few things that are tough about listening...
Listening requires action
The dictionary has a whole list of definitions, but the one that stands out to us is this: making an effort to hear something, being alert and ready. We keep thinking about that phrase: being alert and ready. There's preparation involved in listening. It takes energy. Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith said that "listening is not just hearing what someone tells you word for word. You have to listen with a heart...It's very hard work."
Listening isn't passive. It's a practice – one that we build over time through experience and effort. It means training ourselves out of old habits and into new ones. It means staying present with the things someone is trying to tell us without planning our own response in our heads (almost all of us are guilty of that one). It means asking thoughtful questions and wanting to hear the answers.
Listening can be both powerful and painful
Anthropologist Jane Goodall called listening an instrument of change. She said, "Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right." The thing is, what she's talking about is difficult. It's hard to listen – truly listen – to people with whom we disagree because it requires vulnerability. It requires opening up to receive another person's words. Sometimes those words are painful to us, and listening to them means opening ourselves up to hurt. We might feel like listening to and understanding someone with whom we're in conflict implies some sort of acceptance or endorsement of views different from our own. Listening connects us, and sometimes we may not always want to be connected. Listening takes patience and compassion. It requires us to reach toward peace.
Listening is an act of love
Listening costs us something, but there's also something to be gained. At I Am Second, it's an amazing privilege that people trust us with their stories, and we want to respond to that trust by listening well, by receiving those stories with love and care. The Bible is full of stories of Jesus taking the time to sit with people and listen to them – to their stories, to their fears, to their questions. Each one of those moments catalyzed change in the lives of those who were heard and shifted the direction of the moment toward hope. What would happen if every Christian followed that example – if they committed to prioritizing the practice of listening well? What if when people described those who love Jesus, they said, "They are listeners. They listen with compassion, not condemnation. They listen even when they disagree. When I talk to them, I know I am heard." What if listening became – for all of us – a practical expression of our love in the world, a way to move closer to each other instead of further apart? What would that look like?
If you have a story that needs to be heard, we're listening. Your voice matters and it's a privilege to hear it. You can share your story with I Am Second here.