I suspect we have all heard stories about or even lived with someone who was “hard of hearing”.

My father was a very gentle soul who was hard of hearing. He learned to live with it and compensate for it with the help of hearing aids and lip-reading.

Yet, there were times when it seemed he had bouts of “wife-deafness” (not to be confused with my own younger variant called “mother-deafness”). He seemed to “tune out” what my mother was talking about and then “tune in” when he heard a word or phrase that captured his attention. For either of us, it wasn’t a case of “defective hearing” as much as “selective hearing”.

“Hard of listening”

Recently I revisited the difference between “hearing” and “listening” and the various type of listening.

Hearing is the simple physiological act of hearing sounds. Listening means paying attention to sound, hearing something with thoughtful attention, and giving consideration.

It seems there are at least three types of listeners.

Convinced or combative listeners (the “selective listening” problem characteristic of so much of our political… and ecclesial… discourse today)

  • Does this fit in with what I already know?
  • If not, how can I prove I am right or that the other is wrong?
  • What flaws can I find?

2. Curious listeners

  • What can I learn?
  • How can I use what I learn?

3. Sensitive listeners

  • What is going on here beneath the surface?
  • What is this person feeling… and why?

Some five decades ago, when I was in a training program for marriage therapists, I was introduced to “listening with the third ear”. This was Theodore Reik’s image of listening to what the person may not be aware of, much less able to say.

This is the kind of listening that most mothers develop quickly as they try to understand what their crying child is trying to say.

Synodality focuses on sensitive listening

When the topic of Pope Francis’ “synodality” comes up in conversation, I see lots of eye rolls. They represent reactions from outright rejection to confused willingness. Sometimes these reactions are unconsciously rooted in quite opposite approaches to the mantra “Pray”, Pay” and “Obey”.

In my opinion, Pope Francis believes listening transcends almost every issue. It requires what we would like to say is listening … listening to the Spirit, and listening to each other. He thinks it is so important that he is calling the entire church community to break out of our hard of listening deafness and learn to truly listen to each other and understand one another’s pain.

Let me offer some phrases that are conducive to this kind of listening with sensitivity and caring!

I Don’t Know: We don’t have all the answers. And it scares us to death. That’s a perfect point to start a dialogue. Facing the unknown – and seeking assurances and answers – bonds people like nothing else. All you have to do is first admit what you don’t know.

Tell Me More… It’s the ultimate conversation starter! When you signal that you’re open and intrigued, the other party will respond in kind.

What I Hear You Saying Is… Here’s a way to keep the ideas flowing. Step back and rephrase what someone says. It implies that you’re engaged, increasing the likelihood you’ll get more detail. It’s a win-win for everyone.

I Understand… People long to know they’re not alone, seeking others who’ve been where they are – and have successfully made it through.

Pope Francis’ language of “encounter”… example of meeting people where they are at?

How are you as a listener?

  • Do we think of ourselves as sinners?
  • Do we unconsciously isolate ourselves from others who are different from ourselves?
  • How do those who think and act differently challenge us to grow?
  • Are we aware of showing them they are loved just as we have been?