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Listening Beyond the Words

April 17, 2018

Imagine sitting across from someone who has drastically different political views from you, and before either of you speaks a word about politics, you both have taken the time to get to know each other. And, when you do speak, you choose to speak, and listen, from this place of knowing the other, rather than from opinion or belief.

Everyone has a story. My beliefs and opinions are formed by my story of my life. The same goes for the person who has drastically different political views. And, if I had the same story as the person sitting across from me, I would have the same political views. I would be that person. Imagine that!

The invitation is to understand the other’s story, before speaking any words. And, the invitation is to listen before speaking. Not just to actively listen, but to listen from a knowing of that person. What about that person may be underlying what she is saying? What is her story?

To understand someone’s story, we can start by being curious and, ideally, really interested in knowing what matters to that person. What someone says is an expression, or an extension, of where one finds meaning as well as what the person cares about above all else. So, to listen beyond the words starts with a curiosity about this person sitting across from me, really wanting to know what makes him tick.

First, though, I must know my own story, including what matters the most to me. The words that I speak are an expression and extension of who I am and what I most care about. Taking the time to dive into learning about why I think what I think can be an illuminating exercise!  And, most important, knowing everything that has contributed to my life also enables me to detach from my story. Then, when I am able to detach, it is much more possible to to appreciate and be curious about what has formed another’s story. When I know more about me, I have more capacity to know more about the other.

When I understand that my views are simply a product of all of my experiences up to this point in my life, I find I can hold on to them less tightly. Passionately held beliefs are to be respected, not dismissed; at the same time, when I realize that another’s passionately held beliefs are simply a product of that person’s life experiences, I can then choose to move beyond the words and be curious about the person.

Until we listen beyond the words with a true curiosity about and desire to learn about the other, we will be listening to just the words and not the person. We may even think we can predict the words, based on an assumption of what that person likely believes, through the veil of our preconception of the other’s story. In effect we de-humanize the man or woman sitting on the other side of the divide, seeing a stereotype rather than a living, breathing human who most likely cares about the world as much as I do.

There are so many influences and experiences that have affected our individual stories, including: family, society, culture, ethnicity, education, work, religion/spirituality, country of origin, geography/environment, and more. And, each of these external factors affects me differently than another because of my uniqueness, my individual traits and characteristics. It indeed is true that there is not anyone else in the world exactly like me, or you. 

There are a multitude of factors that have formed our respective beliefs and views; do we wish to be curious and listen beyond the words, to take the time to set aside our stories and discover the uniqueness and fascination of the other? I have had numerous conversations where knowing the details of another’s experience has helped me to understand why they hold the views they do. 

Why take the time to learn about the other? Because until we each choose to listen beyond the words to know the other’s story, the possibility of uniting rather than continually dividing is bleak. Mainstream news and social media, as just two examples, continue to separate and divide, narrowing and crafting their messages to affirm their audience’s point of view. One key way to break through this reality is to connect with another to learn what is underlying their words. 

What becomes possible in the practice of listening beyond the words? In a word, everything! Imagine really “getting” someone who has different political views. Imagine the experience of someone with “opposing” views actually getting you. Imagine feeling connected deeply with the other in that moment, knowing her story as well as what matters most to her. Imagine experiencing the person rather than the stereotype. Imagine perceived divide turning into deep understanding.

Crossing the bridge from divide to understanding, and often to unity, is absolutely possible. Yes, it takes time as well as a willingness to be very, very curious to listen beyond the words, including the rhetoric that permeates our public discourse with the intent to divide. This is no small task. What is possible in the choice to do so, however, is a much deeper understanding and connection, even the experience of a sacred conversation, that can lead to unanticipated collaboration and working together.

Being willing to listen to another’s perspective, another’s words, is a great start. To listen beyond the words, however, to be curious about another’s life, and to learn what really matters the most to that person, offers the possibility of a transformative, sacred experience of deep connection. From this experience of deep connection and understanding, new ways of being and doing together can emerge. 

Imagine the possibilities.

Thomas McSteen