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The Listening Point

by Lloyd Steffen

Lloyd Steffen is chaplain at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 21-28, 1990 pp.1087-1088, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A friend, called upon to bless a family gathering, misspoke his way into wisdom: "God, keep us needful of the minds of others." Although the need for the minds of others is obvious, much of what human beings strive for -- success, power, self-fulfillment -- seeks to avoid the transformative influence of other minds. Resisting the call of the other to come out of oneself and make oneself available to the other, which is the temptation of self-centered-ness, can itself be countered by performing various activities of openness, none of which is more important than listening.

The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for oneís partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. Listening is an act of attending to the other that discloses the strangeness of otherness, disrupting our comfortable self-images and threatening to undo our everyday experience of ourselves (and others) as familiar and basically unified personalities. Not listening becomes a way of securing ourselves from encounter with the mystery of otherness. Listening exposes us to our own desires not to want to share of ourselves. Listeners are required not only to welcome the strangeness of the other but to risk self-disclosure in the act of listening, for the listener must at some point recognize and then expose to the other his or her own strangeness -- and not only to the other but to oneís own self.

As a college teacher, I often hear colleagues at my own school and at other institutions bemoaning their students poor communication skills, especially their writing skills. Poor writing, however, is a symptom of a deeper problem: students also have difficulty reading. Many students do not love reading or working at reading and therefore have not learned how to engage a text. Many do not listen to those who would speak to them through written words, which is to say they do not understand that they must approach a text, even one they find disagreeable, with respect and the openness of humility. The reading problem, then, is itself a symptom of a problem with listening. Many students do not know how to listen, even to themselves.

After talking about this deeper problem for a long time, my colleague Thomas P. Kasulis and I developed an experimental course called The Listening Point. We took the title from a book by Sigurd Olsen, an environmental poet who believed people must find a "listening point" somewhere because "only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard." The Listening Point was an introduction to a philosophy course. It used no books. The premise of the course was that the students would be the texts. They were required to engage one another in conversation, to develop listening skills, and to learn to think through their own and one anotherís ideas on such questions as: "What makes people happy? What do you think should make people happy?" "How do we know what we know?" "How is the world different from my world?" "If you could change two things to make this a more just world, what would they he and why?" The range of questions moved through epistemology, aesthetics and ethics, ending finally with this question: "Why is the question, ĎWhat is a person?í the appropriate question to ask to pull together all the issues discussed in this course?"

Each week, students were given listening assignments, usually requiring meetings of three students. They would meet outside class to discuss an issue: two people would talk while the third would listen and then report to the class what happened in the discussion. Students were continually called on to summarize the main points of someone elseís remarks, to ask critical questions or seek clarifications about ideas they did not understand: this was how they learned the process of philosophy. Using books was not allowed, though as educators we could not be too upset if students occasionally cheated by going to the library. Several students complained that they got headaches from having to pay attention for the two-hour Monday night class; several others told us that they could not seem to relax after class, and that they kept conversations going into the wee hours. Students were required to meet with the instructors individually. The final exam was to participate in a conversation about a question previously discussed in the course, selected at random. Students were evaluated not only on how well they listened to each other but on how much they helped the other person clarify and articulate his or her positions. That is, they were finally evaluated on how well they helped another person listen to herself.

This course was eye-opening. Students got to know one another and professors got to know students in new ways. Most students found out that they really were interesting texts; others confronted some serious personal issues, turning the discussions in a therapeutic direction -- an allowable move since clear thinking and self-confrontation are essential to both philosophy and therapy. But what was most important was the development of listening skills.

The first stage of listening required that students simply attend to the other person and hear what the person is saying. That required students to eliminate distractions, to he present to the other person, and to stop interfering with communication by anticipating oneís own response before the other person had even finished speaking. Second, students learned to evaluate critically what they heard. Here the test was to be able to repeat what had been said, to summarize the other personís position to the other personís satisfaction, then to seek clarification and offer critical response, usually in the direction of seeing how adequately the speakerís argument could be defended. Imagination was required at this stage of listening, for students had to consider implications and imagine possible problems that might arise from the other personís thought; they also had to attune themselves to the other and actually try to see things from the other personís point of view. The third stage, which we rarely saw but occasionally glimpsed, occurred when persons presented themselves before the other and revealed themselves in a true engagement with the other, sharing not only words but gestures and intentions, and being understood so well that another student might actually volunteer to articulate a position or idea better than did the person offering it -- yet without necessarily agreeing with it.

Students seemed most amazed by how much they disagreed -- something they were not finding out from their other classes or even from their social life. They found that their disagreements were very interesting and not cause for alarm or embarrassment or increased defensiveness. Occasionally a student would offer statements like, "The meaning of our words seems to depend on how we use them for certain tasks," thus blurting out an insight the student discovered independently of Wittgenstein, or offering the view -- not from Aristotle but from herself -- that happiness is the highest good of human beings. This third stage was where the speaker was listening to his or her own self, and offering that self to others in an invitation to experience a personal encounter not just with ideas, but with the person. This was astonishing to witness in a classroom -- even humbling.

The Listening Point is not meant to replace traditional education but to make traditional education work -- to make it possible for students and teachers to get to know one another, to approach the strangeness of otherness, whether in a written text or in the presence of another person. This was challenging and exhausting. Seniors, who had a lot invested in the identities they had created in college (and taken out loans for) , were least likely to expose themselves or accept the challenge of listening. Some students were hostile to the process, and the hostility was often projected onto the instructors. Several students dropped the course because of the challenges others presented to their own beliefs and certainties. But many students were positively affected, some deeply. I have come to believe that listening-point opportunities are needed in a variety of educational settings -- in seminaries, law schools, medical schools, graduate schools, and in churches among believers, who often deal with one another not as persons but as strangers.

We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love. Christians believe that Jesus listened to God and to those he encountered in his daily life. We do neither. If we listened to one another we should be inviting one another into new forms of relationship based on openness and respect and a willingness to share ourselves. If we listened for God, we should spend our time not praying for ourselves but listening to our prayers to see what we are saying not to God but to ourselves. The heart is a great mystery. Christians believe that God knows the human heart (and we do not) , for that heart is where Godís omniscience lies. God does not need to be informed about our wants and needs. It is we who need to know what we want, what we fear, what we love.

Listening for God is finally like trying to listen to oneís own self, and that is no easy task. Listening for God requires the listening to the self that makes up any moment of confession and self-examination. Listening for God requires that we learn to be critical of ourselves, since so much of what we want interferes with what our religious traditions tell us God wants, which is simply that we love one another and trust that the spirit of God shall be with us. For the listening point is what Jesus wanted for us -- that place where "they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them" (Matt. 13:15)


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