Compassionate Listening

Father Richard shares his experience of how challenging it is to hear each other without agenda or defensiveness:   

Can we take responsibility for the fact that we push people to polarized positions when we do not stand in the compassionate middle? I think of how often, during my talks, someone raises a hand and says, “I disagree with what you just said.” Often, they did not hear or understand what I said, and they don’t have the humility to ask, in a non-accusatory way: “Did I hear you correctly in saying . . . ?” or “What do you mean when you say . . . ?” Of course, sometimes I am wrong, but such a mentality does not encourage dialogue or mutuality. Unfortunately, my response also often suffers because of the negative energy generated. I am then defensive or biting my tongue to control my own judgments or desire to attack back. The result is a half response, at best, because the environment is not safe and congenial.  

Responses of this sort are usually full of assumptions: “I did understand you. I know your motivation. I know what you’re trying to say. Therefore, I actually have the need and right to attack you.” Normally, neither person grows or expands in such a context. The truth is not well served, because neither individual feels secure, respected, or connected. Unfortunately, this has become the state of our public discourse.  

Fortunately, there will always be people who have the grace and the ability to engage in reflective listening, to ask, “Richard, did I understand what you were saying?” and repeat back to me their perception of what I said. Normally then I can clarify, or perhaps admit that I have communicated poorly or am, in fact, incorrect. When we can listen and respond in that way, each person is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve as children of God. Each person feels heard, and misunderstandings are clarified compassionately.  

Unfortunately that is not the way the ego likes to work. Opposition gives us a sense of standing for something, a false sense of independence, power, and control. Compassion and humility don’t give us a sense of control or psychic comfort. We have to be willing to let go of our moral high ground and hear the truth that the other person may be speaking, even if it is only ten percent of what they are saying. Compassion and dialogue are essentially vulnerable positions. If we are into control and predictability, we will seldom descend into the vulnerability of undefended listening or the scariness of dialogue. If we are incapable of hearing others, we will also be incapable of hearing God. If we spend all day controlling and blocking others, why would we change when we kneel to pray?  

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder(Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2001, 2020), 56–57.

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