He was talking, but I couldn’t hear him for the light.
That’s right — for the light. A big window behind him turned him into a silhouette, a black cardboard cut-out. I could hear his voice, but I couldn’t see his mouth, his eyes, his face. And so I missed a lot of what he was saying.
Listening doesn’t depend only on ears. Granted, my ears are not what they used to be. (Nothing about me is what it used to be.) A few years ago, I got hearing aids. They help — when I remember to wear them.
Rather, listening is a multi-sensory experience. I need to supplement the sounds of speech with other clues. The look on a person’s face. The twinkle in her eyes. What he does with his hands, how she holds her shoulders.
Students of communication claim that less than 10 per cent of a message comes through the actual words used. Another 40 per cent or so comes from the voice — its tone, its pitch, its melody or dissonance. The remaining 50 per cent comes from non-verbal clues, what we commonly call body language.
That’s why a face-to-face contact is always more persuasive than an e-mail or a text message; why a phone call can resolve differences that even the most carefully crafted letters seem to exacerbate; why television can sell useless products more effectively than radio or print.
We are whole body creatures. We communicate with our whole bodies. We listen with our whole bodies.
And perhaps with more than our physical bodies.
I have only twice seen a person’s aura. But that’s enough to convince me that humans do radiate something. Even if I can neither define nor measure that emanation, I’m sure it influences me.
Listening is a skill. It needs to be practised.
In a workshop on congregational renewal, Bruce Sanguin suggested that the first thing a congregation needs to do is to learn to listen to each other. Not to offer answers. Or judgement. But to listen.
Sanguin suggested that, instead of seizing a silence to insert my own words of wisdom, I should summarize what I heard the other saying. Partly to be sure I heard them right. Partly to reassure them I really had been listening.
Because, honestly, sometimes I haven’t been. I have merely waited for a break in the flow of words so that I can offer my own view. Or rebuttal. Or, I regret, a vaguely related joke.
Listening is not egocentric.
I wonder what would happen if we really learned to listen to other humans. And beyond humans. If we unplugged our earphones, if we turned off our cell phones, could we hear the inaudible voices of trees, flowers, and grasses? Could we hear the earth through the soles of our feet? Could we hear the atmosphere with our noses?
Perhaps, if we emptied our minds of our incessant busy-ness, we might even be able to listen to that still small voice beyond nature, within nature, that some of us call God? Instead of trying to tell God what we think God needs to know, could we hear something we didn’t know was there?