Every act of true listening is an act of faith. When you truly listen to someone, you’ve quit dwelling on that person as someone who can harm you, or as someone who can take something away from you, or that this time of listening will make you lose something. Instead, when you truly listen, you’re tacitly affirming the other person. You’re saying that the other has value, that what the other’s life has taught him or her is real and valid, and that the other’s humanity is important. All of that is an act of faith because it simply says that no matter what transpires in this act of listening, you’re going to be okay – maybe even better.
And every act of listening recognizes a very basic truth: every human being has a story. Until we know that story, our own story remains impoverished. Until we know the story of the other person, we lack a piece of reality. Until we know the story of the other, we don’t have a complete grasp on the world as it is. In fact, listening never reduces you. It always makes you bigger and deeper.
But here’s the catch: you cannot arrive at this kind of growth if you do not make yourself vulnerable to the other, and to change. You have to drop your old defenses and hold the old habitual stories in abeyance that we’ve so long told about the other person and the group to which he or she belongs. It means becoming curious about the other and ready to hear the reality of what the other loves and values. This prospect can be scary to some people.
And here we’re back to why true listening is an act of faith. As Thomas Merton said, “I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when people who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God (in New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 77).”
I want to recommend two links that have brilliant insight into the beauty of true listening and the vulnerability it requires. The first is the website of the Compassionate Listening Project. Read about what these folks have done to bring Palestinians and Israelis together to listen to one another.http://www.compassionatelistening.org/
The second is a TED talk by Brené Brown on the necessity and power of vulnerability.