Thursday, January 16, 2014

Learning the art of listening

For the next three days, I'll be attending a workshop put on by L'Arche's Western Region for those who accompany L'Arche assistants who work with our people with disabilities. I'm very much looking forward to it, because I have been accompanying some assistants over the last few years, and haven't always felt like I knew how to listen well enough.

Socrates is credited with saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living." In accompaniment, I listen, and hold out what I hear so that the assistant can examine it and decide if changes are required. I also offer encouragement and try to ensure that the assistant knows how to access what he or she needs to be good at caring for himself or herself and to live with people with disabilities in mutual relationship.

Henri Nouwen speaks beautifully about the spiritual hospitality offered when we listen:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations.  True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known.   They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. 
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.  Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.  The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves.  Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you. 
--Henri Nouwen  Bread for the Journey, March 11

I find that listening to assistants is easy because we set time aside just for that, I have no personal agenda when they come to visit, I find them so interesting, and I want to help them see how amazing they are. I also want to help my own family discover their own true selves, but somehow it's harder to listen well when life is making its day-to-day demands. I'm very fortunate to have and be a good sounding board with my husband, but it's not so easy with our children because all that parenting stuff gets in the way, if you know what I mean.

Motherhood means that I'm often distracted from what they are telling me by what I think I need to say to them. I'm not really listening as much as looking for an opening to remind them about their chores or some mundane thing that's not really important. I'm not paying them the kind of attention that helps them to discover their own goodness. Other times I want to listen, but they're too busy, and I think it would be great to tie them to a chair so that I can be sure that I'm hearing what they're really saying -- and what they're not! 

Perhaps I just need to remind myself more often to be open to those moments when they are trying to tell me something important -- or when they're seemingly talking about nothing. I need to remind myself that when they are talking, it's usually a run up to what they really want to say, and I need to make time for them to actually say it, as I do when accompanying L'Arche assistants.

Learning the art of listening is a tricky business. I'm hoping this weekend's workshop will help me to be more comfortable with my position as accompanier, and with my own vocation as a parent. Watch this space, as I hope to share what I learn.

Who do you really listen to? Who really listens to you?

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