The Art of Virtuous Listening

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"Virtue of the Month Series" by Linda Kracht (CatholicMom.com)

Via Pixabay (2013), CC0 Public Domain. Text added in Picmonkey.

Listening – the Virtue

“Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven. Which are the two great commandments that contain the whole law of God? The two great commandments that contain the whole law of God are: 1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength; and 2. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Baltimore Catechism Lesson 1 & 189]

Contained within simple, faith filled dogma are the roadmaps leading us toward a purposeful life that includes meaningful relationships with God, family, friends and neighbors. God’s [and His Church’s]directions for life simplify what we tend to over-complicate; G.K.Chesterton quipped that morality is always dreadfully complicated to a man who has lost his principles. Unfortunately, the more we detach from God and His lessons on life, the more we fail to authentically love each other. And the less we love others authentically, the less we listen to them virtuously.

Recently, I was invited to facilitate a small group of women signed up to discuss Jesus Approaches by Elizabeth Kelly. The author treated the small group facilitators to a morning of reflection prior to the kickoff of an eight-week book study for women. Elizabeth introduced the need to listen to others actively and reverentially. While not exactly referring to listening as a virtue, it certainly rises to that description when we do it consistently right.

We are created by God as social persons who thrive on fellowship and other personal relationships. All of our social engagements require talking with each other. And how most of us love to talk! On any given day, men and women utter nearly 17,000 words per person per day! It used to be said that women out-talked men — no matter the setting. Recent research reveals “women talk more — more often, at greater length and about more personal topics. But that’s private speakingconversations that negotiate and strengthen personal relationships. Men tend to talk far more than women in what might be called public speaking — formal business-focused contexts, like meetings.”[The Truth About How Much Women Talk — and Whether Men Listen by Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor. June 28, 2017] But how well do we listen to each other?

The spoken word is an entreaty to someone to listen! Few of us like talking to ourselves — at least audibly. If we accidentally emit self-talk, we hope nobody is within earshot, out of embarrassment or fear of being labeled doddery.

How well do we need to listen to other people? We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who does not hear or listen to us. The first requires us to talk louder or clearer. The second situation implies that the listener doesn’t care to listen to us for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are bored with us, or are just plain ignoring us due to anger. We fail to listen when distracted by something or someone else. Multitasking makes it difficult to listen. Regardless of the reason, not being listened to feels disrespectful.

Have you seen the TV commercial showing a man under the sink fixing the plumbing while his wife is standing over him and talking? Eventually the wife wonders if her husband is listening because his responses amount to grunts at natural conversational pauses. She tests his listening by saying something very disparaging about him and his response was merely the same grunt. She naturally feels hurt by his lack of attention and his pretense of listening to her.

Not one person enjoys being ignored or half-listened to. We feel disrespected when we are ignored by our spouse or children or even the boss, an employee, or a sales associate from a local store. We all want people to listen to and hear the words coming out of our mouths. I recently asked my book club if they know when someone is/is not listening to them and how that makes them feel. As if on cue, they collectively sighed a yes — confirming their hurt. Not listening to someone is counterproductive to the building up or maintenance of good, healthy, personal relationships.

So, yes, all of us are called to listen to each other fully, actively and reverentially. And when we do so, we begin to hone the art of virtuous listening. Some people are naturally better at this than others, though a high percentage of us benefit from thinking about the need for virtuous listening and what it entails.

The virtue of listening requires that we listen with both ears while simultaneously engaging the brain and the eye to eye contact. It requires us to nix multitasking when talking with someone. It’s disturbing that people think they can actually carry on multiple conversations at the same time while viewing someone’s Instagram! That is not virtuous listening. The virtue of listening entails trying to understand the “humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self, best words and best questions.” [Krista Tippett, On the Lost Social Art of Listening. June 29, 2017. https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/10180-on-the-lost-social-art-of-listening]

But virtuous listening requires more than just fostering a generous desire to understand. It requires us to deny ourselves any temptation to interrupt the other person even when bursting with information valuable to the conversation at hand — even when we consider our side thoughts, personal commentary, or gotcha questions to be important or significant or pertinent. We have to let someone finish their thoughts first, and that requires our full attention and restraint. When our minds wander off during the conversation — for any reason — we distract ourselves from paying attention. Interrupting someone with personal commentary distracts him/her from telling a full story.

Virtuous listening requires us to silence our hearts and minds in order to receive another person’s words well. All of us have to fight the boredom that may set in when listening to a rather long monologue or when a person is talking about something we are not very interested in. Listening well requires the avoidance of any type of pretense. Virtuous listening requires us to set aside personal agendas or points of view — at least while the person is talking. It means avoiding the temptation to fix someone’s problem right then and there. It avoids the giving of any negative, harmful critique, feedback, or opinion. It requires that we pay visual attention to the person talking with us [unless we are on the phone].

Virtuous listening is reverential of the speaker; it is also active. This means listening with respect, honor for, and love of the person talking with us simply because he/she is a child of God. Virtuous listening prompts the asking of generous, good questions when seeking clarification — after the person is done talking. On the other hand, “inappropriate questions tend to provoke fights or advance assumptions masked as an inquiry. Our responses ought to invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.” [Krista Tippett; On the Lost Social Art of Listening. June 29, 2017. https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/10180-on-the-lost-social-art-of-listening]

Providing feedback or food for later thought is also helpful when the timing is right. Finally, virtuous listening requires us to tell someone when we do not have the time — right then and there — to really listen to them but would love to hear their story at a later date — and mean it. Our words have to be honest and respectful, no matter what part of the conversation we are having.

Kirsta’s comments about questions being redemptive and life giving remind us why listening is a virtue when attended to actively, reverently and consistently. Indeed, our words can be affirming, redemptive and life giving  —  but so is our listening. We feel well-loved when we are listened to with someone’s rapt attention.

The rules-to-follow for cultivating the virtue of listening are difficult to stick to — especially for yours truly. Maybe that’s why I like writing! Virtuous listening is always going to be extremely difficult to practice when we presume that we have a lot of advice to offer someone. That’s where pride can take over! It’s true, mothers grow accustomed to the giving of a lot of advice while actively parenting; but that doesn’t mean that we continue that practice long after the child has become an adult. And it certainly doesn’t mean that our emerging adults are listening. Like other virtues, practice makes perfect. The breaking of bad habits has to be deliberate and intentional. Finally, Elizabeth Kelly reminds us that virtuous listening allows us to actively listen for the presence of the Lord. 

"The art of virtuous listening" by Linda Kracht (CatholicMom.com)

Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is that why so few people are listening to God today — because few are talking with Him to begin with? Have we strayed so far from the habitual practice of putting on virtue that we simply cannot listen well for the Lord? As goes the natural order, so goes the supernatural. If we don’t listen well to fellow human beings, how well are we going to listen to God?

So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah? [1 Kings 19: 11-13]

It bears repeating that the opposing vices to virtuous listening include pride, arrogance, conceit, the deliberate ignoring of someone; disrespect of others; selfishness; self-interests; pretensions; and the criticizing of others. On the other hand, virtuous listening is well supported by the virtues of humility, love, concern for others, prudence, interest in others, respect, honor, selflessness, etc. It takes patience and effort to put on any virtue, including virtuous listening. Even when feeling disrespected by someone who time and again fails to listen to us, we ought never to seek revenge or pay back. Arming ourselves with personal virtue — including forgiveness of others — allows us to become better listeners and in turn better spouses, friends, neighbors and parents. Putting on virtue helps to promote every aspect of our personal relationships. Good listening is a virtue to teach to children at every opportunity that presents itself. Remember, your children are watching you!

Arm yourselves with the natural virtue of listening well: with your spouses when they speak to you;  with your children when they speak to you; with family members and neighbors. You may be amazed at how your personal relationships improve. Finally, listen to hear God’s voice out of love for Him.

“You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.” St. Therése of Lisieux

Questions to ponder:

  1. How well do you listen to others? What can you do to become a virtuous listener?
  2. How well are you listened to by family and friends?
  3. How well do you listen to God?

Copyright 2017 Linda Kracht

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About Author

Linda Kracht is wife to David, mother to seven very special children and grandmother to 17 little ones [presently]. Linda enjoys speaking and writing and has developed field guides for families in English and Spanish about parenting, marriage, faith, morals, and family life. Kracht founded Fortifying Families of Faith [2008] to help parents honor their role as primary teacher of their children in matters that matter.

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