Posted July 29, 2010
You Want to be a Leader? Learn how to Listen!
“To whom would you point as real leaders among our bishops?”
This question arises every time people learn I worked for the Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C. When they discover that I also live a block from the U.S. Capitol, they inevitably ask, “Who among our senators, congressmen and congresswomen can we consider respected leaders?”
Leadership has been and always will be a major topic of discussion. Why is this so? Because it is at the center of power. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
What one quality more than others must priests possess to be revered leaders?
On a visit to St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I interviewed several monks on the Rule of St. Benedict as it applies to leadership. [These interviews are on our website: The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood www.jknirp.com]. In my interview with Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B. I asked him, “What is the one quality most an abbot must possess according to St. Benedict?” Without hesitation, he replied, “listening!”
In the book Listen With Your Heart, Fr. Basil Pennington OCSO, echoes Archabbot Nowicki in pointing us to a paragraph in the Rule of Benedict in which listening is mentioned seven times in the matter of five sentences.
The Chinese proverb, “When the ear does not listen the heart escapes sorrow,”
reminds us of an essential quality of listening Archabbot Nowicki was quick to add, “Benedict implores us to listen with the ear of our heart.”
When we apply listening with the heart to priests as leaders, what is meant exactly?
The Latin words audire and ascultare are a good starting point for answering the question. Audire means to hear, whereas ascultare means to listen. Hearing with our ears is absolutely necessary for listening, but hearing with consideration, care, and interest is the essence of listening with the heart, portraying an image of leaning toward the speaker with undivided attention.
In the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a beautiful white marble statue of Nybia, the blind slave girl of Pompeii is on display. With her right hand on a walking stick and her left hand cupped to her ear, she is listening to the vibrations emanating from the erupting Mount Vesuvio. Sensing the mood, disposition and vibrations radiating from a person is one way to envision listening with the ear of our heart. Our sixth sense of hearing is activated, encouraging us to reflect on and feel more deeply what we are hearing.
Listening with the heart also implies listening with our eyes. My mother often would shout at us, “You aren’t listening to me!” and then add, “Look me in the face.”
I have attended numerous high powered receptions in Washington, D.C. in which there was continuous chatting everywhere, but in all honesty, true listening was rare. Many of those in attendance could be seen surveying the room as they talked to see who they knew or didn’t know. Most of what they were hearing was going in one ear and out the other because they were not focused on the person in front of them.
I never realized the importance of face-to-face listening until I came across the words afrente Dios — turning our face toward God — in our Spanish breviary. It means to be in a straight line and aligned with God in order to listen to him unabashedly. It is inviting body language that says, “I am not only hearing you, but I am with you.”
These essential qualities of listening with the heart lead us to wonder how much more meaningful pastoral ministry would be if we practiced them ever so little more? Would our homilies touch hearts better; confessions be more heartfelt; counseling be more effective; bedside manners be more meaningful, and our daily contact with parishioners be more personable? Undoubtedly this would happen! Take for example, the power of listening in the rite of reconciliation.
In Kurt Stasiak’s O.S.B. book A Confessor’s Handbook, he raises several important questions confessors should consider when with a penitent. Another way of interpreting these questions is to see them as spiritual tools a confessor should cultivate to be a better listener.
“Does the penitent think of God as a judge — or as the Father of Mercies? Does she see her confessor as a ‘channel’ directing her plea for forgiveness upward and then pulling down God’s pardon from above? Or in her eyes are we a minister in the true sense of the word: a representative of the Church and an instrument and symbol of the grace of God? Does her examination of conscience and subsequent confession resemble a lengthy lamentation of legal violations? Or is her preparation for and celebration of the sacrament a time of accountability for her: a time when, with the help of God’s grace, she renews her responsibilities as Christian, wife, and mother?”
Notice how these questions spiritualize our listening. Each of them moves us deeper into the realm of the soul and what it might contain or what might be lacking.
To the question, “Would our homilies be better if we practiced listening better?”, again the answer is an unqualified, yes!
In one of the parishes I served, the pastor had a brown bag lunch in the downtown area where parishioners worked. As we ate, we listened to the types of work in which they were engaged.
That afternoon had a profound impact on my homilies. After it, I found myself adjusting my approach to them substantially because of a new conception of our parishioners. Every Sunday, they were sitting together in front of me as one. After that experience, they stood out as unique persons with unique backgrounds. Seeing them out of the box of the parish was a homily changing experience. All it takes is one meaningful listening session to generate new life in our homilies.
Yet another valuable pastoral dimension of going outside the box of our parishes and entering into the world of those to whom we minister surfaced in a second interview at St. Vincent’s. The seminary has a unique program for seminarians that is focused on pastoral listening. A year is dedicated to listening to persons who have had abortions, depression, drug dependency, and other debilitating problems. These sessions explore the benefits of good listening as well as the harm poor listening can cause.
The seminary program reminded me that many of our people see us as spiritual guides, but equally so as therapists. The key to being effective is found in our listening powers, being all there for them, and especially entering into their suffering.
During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II advocated the virtue of solidarity repeatedly. In the case of listening, it translates into putting ourselves in the shoes of those we are listening to and feeling simpatico.
In my lifetime, I have experienced the beauty of solidarity and its healing powers, and also times in which I yearned for it, but was deprived of it because of a poor listener. I will never forget feeling depressed one day and coming downstairs to our kitchen in a state of anxiety. In the kitchen there was a visiting priest who asked me how I was going. I told him of my problem, he listened intently, and then offered a few words of wisdom that completely turned me, my problem and day around. He allowed me to air my inner most fears by just being there and listening. Once my anxieties were aired, it was like a wound that heals quickly when exposed to the air.
There have been times also, in which I blurted out a problem to another I thought would be a sympathetic listener, but wasn’t. I wasn’t given a chance to be heard and possibly healed.
U.S. playwright Wilson Mizner teaches us yet another dimension of listening in telling us, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but, after a while, knows something.”
Contemplation, learning and listening are complementary. Each needs the other to be successful. Good listening, learning and contemplation require absorption and the internalization of what is said. The more we study how to achieve this, the better our listening powers. We used to have a professor who taught repeatedly, “Study is ministry.” We can add, “So too is study necessary for the ministry of listening and its ministerial powers to improve.”
A dimension of listening that often goes unnoticed is it being an art, and like any art, it requires devotion. Shakespeare once said, “Knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.” Constant improvement requires the blood and sweat that ongoing study demands. To be a good listener, we need to be like a starving artist who is forever seeking more depth in his or her work of art, who is never satisfied with the status quo, but always hungering for perfection, and yes, even losing sleep in pursuit of it.
When we speak of the art of listening, what exactly is envisioned? One answer is that just as a musician is forever trying to improve his or her artistic touch, so too, a devoted student of listening is forever looking to improve his or her unique human and spiritual listening touch.
In the 1960's, the Rogerian method of indirect counseling was highly respected as an excellent way to counsel. The main principle upon which it was built was listening. Instead of giving advice to a person being counseled, you listen to him or her in hopes of them better hearing themselves, and in doing so, see their problem and correct it.
Some students of the Rogerian method, however, took listening too far and would either stare down the person being counseled, or use repeated clichés like, “If I hear you correctly, you are saying . . . , or, you feel very distraught about this, don’t you?” Their listening was mechanical, lacking a sincere touch. In counseling others, the misuse of listening ended up seeming staged and stilted. These abuses remind us that listening must never be reduced to a method. It is a human art requiring the best of our human heart.
What are some of the biggest hindrances to sincere, heartfelt listening? A passing comment by St. Vincent’s seminary rector points us to a common and understandable one.
“When young men put on the uniform of a priest and are fresh from the books,” he said, “there is a tendency to act authoritative. This can easily end up in giving one-way-continuous advice.”
When I heard this, the thought occurred that his observation shouldn’t be limited to young priests. As we get older, we naturally absorb ministerial wisdom through a myriad of learning moments. We are also seen as an elder that people tend to admire. It is ever so easy to fall into the trap of taking advantage of our revered position and to become THE teacher, THE counselor, THE pastor, always giving advice, being the center of attention, and hence forgetting to give more attention than receive it. A young woman recently told me of an incident that exemplifies this.
A renowned, elderly university priest was asked to celebrate mass in her dorm. When it came time for the homily, he preached for one straight hour.
She went on to say, “When some people get older, I get the feeling they need to tell us their life history.”
Aging is not the only thing that causes us to talk more than listen. For some of us, all it takes is to be handed a microphone and away we go. Once this becomes an ingrained habit, the habit of artful listening tends to wane.
It needs to be pointed here in fairness to older people that they tend to feel lonely as their friends die or leave them. As one monk told me, “When you visit one of our elderly brothers in the infirmary, you need to be prepared for a long listening session. Who can blame him? His world as he once knew it has shrunk, and all he desires now is someone to talk with.”
Another monk at St. Vincent’s spoke of an intriguing painting of Benedict he saw that exemplifies a cultural road block to good listening.
The painting wasn’t of an old, grey-haired man bent over by age. Rather, it was of a frightened young man on the run. Benedict was running from the hectic life of Rome, wanting to escape from it all, go to the desert, and just be quiet and listen.
The monk pointed out, “Much of our environment militates against good listening. We are on cell phones, listening to music on i-pods, and bombarded by the media constantly. Our ears are filled with all types of sounds that crowd our mind and deprive it of contemplation needed for good listening. To be a good listener, our minds need to focus and to cultivate an inner quietness that allows them to fully digest what they hear.”
As I listened to him, an example from golf popped into my mind that confirms the need for maintaining our contemplative edge if we are to be a good listener.
Even though a golfer’s nerves may be at the breaking point when he or she is addressing a winning putt, great golfers are able to call on the needed composure for victory. Their secret is being able to go into their interior and listen to themselves rather than to the crowd. This is a gift, but with practice it can also be cultivated.
Active ministry is a great energizer and also the greatest enemy against composure. If it is not balanced with inner listening, it is ever so easy to lose our taste for the art of listening.
St. John of the Cross takes us deeper into the heart of good listening in reminding us that we carry a lot of baggage, i.e., possessions that hinder us from listening to God and others. To listen well, we need to especially let go of the tempting desire to be the center of attention. He gives the example of a bird that is tied to a string. It makes no difference how thin the string is, as long as it ties down the bird, the bird can’t fly. This especially applies to listening. Good listening requires we give our self to others with no strings attached. To hear well implies setting self aside in order to be able to perch ourselves on the shoulder of the person speaking to us.
Listening with the heart is laborious, and at times it can be a heavy burden rather than a joy. All it takes is listening to a scrupulous person, or an opinionated person who never shuts up to know how true this is. And too, there are some people who look for good listeners to air out their problems. Sometimes this leads to over dependency that is unhealthy. In these situations wisdom counsels us to halt listening for the good of the speaker and also our good.
There is an old proverb, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Applied to listening, it reminds us that we tend to listen least to those we know most. After listening to them repeatedly, we come to know what they will say. In cases like this it is easy to tune them out. Here the virtue of listening would counsel, “Always try and see something new in old friends!”
Vince Lombardi gives us another wise lesson for good listening, “Fatigue makes cowards of us.” When we are tired, the energy isn’t there for listening. Unless we regenerate ourselves, it is very easy to short change it.
As difficult as it is to listen with the ear of the heart, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. I recently read of a man who had a brief, once-in-a life time conversation with a prominent person. “Years later,” he recalled, “I still felt a close bond with him even though we only met for a few minutes. They were quality minutes in which we truly connected.” Here we learn that nothing is more beautiful in life than intimacy, and nothing is more rewarding than listening to God and others and experiencing the awesome intimacy this creates.
One last observation is in order. Listening should not only be at the center of priestly leadership, but it must be prized for keeping our priesthood alive, healthy and faithful.
Fr. Pennington tells the story of conducting a priest retreat in which a priest told him he was planning to leave the priesthood. Pennington pleaded with him to practice a particular spiritual exercise before he made a final decision. “Enthrone the bible in your room and each time you enter it immediately go to it, read a passage, and then listen to its message.”
After many months, Pennington happened to meet the priest. He inquired, “How are you doing?”
“I am still in the priesthood, thanks to you,” he replied.
St. Benedict uses the word currite, run, when encouraging us to listen to God’s Word. In the above story the concept of immediately going to the bible connotes running in the sense of urgency. Most of our priestly ministry consists in being on the run. The virtue of good listening would ask, “How often do we run to the Word of God to listen to it? Among all our urgencies, how much of an urgency do we feel in perfecting spiritual listening? Is it seen as the heart of our spiritual life as well as our ministry?
In the beginning of this article, we stated that power is at the center of leadership. As we end it, we need to remember that to be a powerful, revered leader, listening with the ear of our heart must be at the center of our priesthood.