And that really is the crux of the matter, the crux of truly listening. It can be very difficult when we are tired or stressed ourselves to be able to give our full attention to someone else. But in religious community surely this is what we are called to do.
I remember some ten years back sitting whilst a good friend of mine was talking to an elderly aunt and could tell that my friend wasn't really listening. They were doing the right thing by nodding and umming and aaahing every so often. But in the eyes I could see that this person was somewhere else. I remember thinking that this woman who was in a residential home was in the last years and perhaps months of her life. She probably didn't get many visitors, so this was a very precious moment. This was perhaps a really treat. It may have been the last time that they saw each other. This was not just a conversation, this was perhaps a goodbye.
It is very easy to do. To forget that the person that we are talking to is not 'me'. The person is different, with a different story. As Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in their book, A Simpler Way
“… at any moment, what we see is most influenced by who we have decided to be. Our eyes do not simply pick up information from the outside world and relay it to our brains. Information relayed for the outside world through the eye accounts for only 20 percent of what we use to create perception. At least 80 percent of the information that the brain works with is information already in the brain.”
Trying to understand that part of the conversation's meaning which is not shared, which is the other person's life and perceptions, is the challenge. And not just for us but for the other person too. They need to understand us just as much as we need to understand them.
Can we in religious community make a commitment to listen not just with our ears but with our intuition and our critical faculties which may help us to guess at the other person's personal understanding of our conversation? Can we commit to sharing a bit more about ourselves so that others have a fighting chance to understand what we say when we say it and what we may be hearing when words are spoken?
It is a rich territory, the land of conversation. But in many senses it is the land where we live. Our religious communities are the conversations and the relationships that emerge from those conversations. When our communities start to fail perhaps the first piece of advice we should give is - talk, truly and truthfully as much as you can to everyone - and listen with your ears, eyes, head, heart and soul.