Monday, August 8, 2011

The Art of Listening

Stop and listen right now.

Take a breath and notice what sounds are hitting your eardrums.

Wherever you're at--an office, a coffee shop, your couch at home, etc.--there is the strong possibility that noise is present. People talking, music blaring, your iTunes playlist, traffic driving past you, the TV just behind your computer screen. We live in a noisy world that is in constant demand of our attention. With the advent of the internet, mass media, and increasingly portable technology, it's difficult to fully unplug from the noise. It even affects our attention spans in conversation--if you don't engage me with your story or idea (or blog post) in the next ten seconds, you've lost me. (You were probably just adding to the noise anyway).

Listening is a skill. It doesn't come naturally. It's an art that requires training and practice. I've had to seriously work on listening well, almost making it a spiritual discipline of sorts. In the world of youth ministry, listening to the hearts and stories of students is one of the best ways to communicate love and compassion. Not many people are willing to listen, truly listen, to a young person's thoughts and stories. How often has an exasperated teenager stomped out of a room with, "you're just not listening to me!" as their mantra?

Sound expert Julian Treasure shares some solid insights about the beauty of listening in this brief TED talk:

Treasure's five exercises:
  1. Silence: Practice having 3 minutes a day of silence and quiet. I've found that simply driving on my commute without the radio or music gives me at least 15 minutes of quietness, and is the perfect time for prayer.
  2. Mixer: Single out different channels of sound in the noisy mix of life. Right now, I can hear my ceiling fan whistling above me, the hum of appliances in the kitchen, my coffee maker bubbling, the hiss of our baby monitor as my son sleeps in his room, the air conditioning unit clicking on, and my own breathing.
  3. Savoring: Enjoy the mundane sounds of everyday life. For instance, I'm currently listening to the quiet hum of my refrigerator, and it's incredibly soothing.
  4. Listening positions: Have a filter or grid for how you are listening--active vs. passive, critical vs. empathic, etc.
  5. RASA: Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. This final acronym seems so basic, yet so essential for good listening skills.

It's not just about listening to other people. We can miss the voice of God in the noise. God is often found in the stillness, the silence. When our ears and hearts are overflowing with noise, the quiet voice of God can get lost in the mix. Be silent before the Lord, focusing on His voice in the mix, savoring the beauty of His presence, and positioning oneself to respond to His guidance.

How are you listening? Who do you need to hear today?

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