Robin Carlo: When Listening Gets in the Way of Listening

How does listening interfere with listening? Let me explain how it happened to me in the midst of a very good sermon.

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I ended last week's blog with a thank you and with the statement that I am a good listener. And I am. When I listen, I listen eagerly, attentively and actively. I am truly interested in what the wonderful people with whom I live and work and even just bump into have to say. I listen well, when I listen.

However, "when" is the operative word and there are times when I am just not listening. After all, my tendency to not listen is what inspired my resolution in the first place. Over the past month and a half I've identified some causes of my inattentiveness: technology, multi-tasking and a tendency to pile a bit too much on my plate. This week at church, though, I discovered another culprit, and a very surprising one: listening. How does listening interfere with listening? Let me explain how it happened to me in the midst of a very good sermon.

I love church. I love the music, the people, the liturgy, the readings, and especially a good sermon. Church is a haven for me; a place where technology and multi-tasking are impossible thus giving me room and time to be still. As I settled into the pew this week, I felt the week of deadlines and checklists slide away and let the words of the hymns and the readings fill me with peace and good news. Our rector began his sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 reflecting on Jesus' words asking his listeners to look deeper into the words of the law.

As Fr. Rich spoke of murder not just as a physical act but as the things we can do to kill each other's spirits, I was listening and listening well. I was listening eagerly, attentively and actively. I was hearing each word and connecting it with the scripture, my background knowledge and my own experience. And that's when it happened. The words so resonated with me that they drew me to an incident earlier in the week wherein I may have at least wounded someone's spirit if not killed it. I replayed the event, admitted my guilt, made plans to reconcile or repair the situation and completely stopped listening to the sermon. By the time I started listening again the sermon was at its end. Thankfully, it will be posted online so I'll be able to catch up on what I missed.

Listening actively as an obstacle to listening? I guess so, but I've decided that in some cases, like this week at church, my wanderings from the conversation are not all bad. I think we are meant to listen in different ways in different situations and certainly no harm was done this time. If this had happened during a conversation with someone though, my detour could have easily been construed as apathy.

How should I handle such a situation when it occurs (and I know myself well enough to know that it will)? My inattentiveness in such cases is not due to apathy; it's caused by interest! It seems like the best action to take is to tell the truth. A simple, "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening. The point you made a minute ago really stole my attention" would probably be received well. What do you think?

—Robin Carlo



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