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How to Listen Better

Whether it’s in a work environment or a personal one, everyone has felt isolated at some point in their lives. In a 2018 “Loneliness Index” study conducted by Cigna†, nearly half of all surveyed reported sometimes or always feeling left alone and/or left out.

With shelter-in-place orders in some parts of the US and calls to “reopen the economy” in others (despite further danger) — it’s more important to listen to one another now, than ever.

When’s a memorable time that you felt listened to?

For me, it was the summer after my husband Daniel passed away. My family held the annual fourth of July gathering at my mother’s house on the North Shore of Boston. At a certain point, the revelry became suffocating. It was so hard to watch others live when I felt my life had stopped. I did what anyone would do — I hid.

My mother found me in the corner of my closet, crying. She sat down next to me and listened as I struggled through sobs to explain the complex feelings of loss, the immense pain. She asked nothing of me. She placed no agenda on the situation. She simply listened, and when I was done, she handed me a tissue.

This is what The Rev. Canon Dana Colley Corsello of the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C. calls “the ministry of presence”. While we may not be able to sit with one another physically at this difficult time, we can listen long-distance — and that can have a profound impact on feelings of isolation and uncertainty.

How can others embrace a “ministry of presence”?

You don’t have to worry about your response. You don’t have to worry about how you can sooth that person, sometimes you just need to be there quiet, nodding and just taking it all in.

Last night on the telephone, I was with a parishioner whose sister is dying of breast cancer. I found myself saying to her, ‘Oh, Roseanne, I’m so sorry.” She can hear me going, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.’ She just needed to get it out. She just needed to tell someone the story.

I think people make the mistake of, when they’re completely silent, because then you think, ‘Are they even listening?’

‘If you really want to listen, you can’t multitask.’

I knew I couldn’t be in the kitchen making dinner for my family. I knew I couldn’t be walking around the house. I came into my living room, I shut the door, I sat down on the couch and I just sat there for the long haul.

No need to wander, no need to go outside and let the wind be distraction. I just knew I had to make space and time. I gave her my undivided attention because I knew she needed that. That’s what I would want, right? Isn’t that what you would want?

When is a time you felt particularly heard?

At my [past] parish in San Francisco, I was the first female director in 140 years or something.

[During a] vestry meeting, one man looked at the senior warden, who was a man, and wouldn’t look at me, and started complimenting the sermon and everything that was going on.

And my senior warden goes, ‘Why are you looking at me? You should be looking at her. She did it all.’

I think my senior warden had been listening to how other people were dishonoring me and discounting me. He was self-aware enough, and attuned to his own privilege, that he got it. And I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

So now I’m much more attuned at listening to people who are oppressed or marginalized and I feel much more free to get in people’s face or correct the situation.

I feel like we can listen on behalf of others even if they’re not in the room or present.

If everyone became a better listener overnight, what might we see happen in the world?

If world leaders really listened, we really listened to people who are not like us, or different religions… obviously, we’d learn we’re much more similar than we are different.

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