Attentive Listening

Lk. 10:38-42 Martha and Mary

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In the last few months, I’ve read several reflections by people my age writing about adolescence in the 70’s. More than one of them have only a vague recollection of their parents divorcing. What they remember is hanging out in the basement or the rec room, hearing adults screaming at each other, only to be left a few months later, pretty much to raise themselves through the end of high school while their parents were off on some quest for self-discovery.

I was a waiter during this period. Occasionally you would see a couple in the restaurant. They would order drinks, dinner, and they would sit there sipping their drinks, staring blankly into space. They never smiled. They never talked to each other. It was like they had been splashed with a perfume called Malaise. They used to fill me with a deep dread and I half wondered if I might end up like that at mid-life- sort of half pickled, half bored, alienated from myself and my spouse.

I am glad to report, at mid-life, that it need not be that way. But, I had the benefit of education on the subject of listening attentively in counseling courses when I was in Divinity school. It is not surprising that we would teach the skills of listening when you think about it because there is something about listening that is an intrinsic part of compassion.

When you try to imagine what Jesus must have been like in actual history, you probably imagine him as a man that had a rather intense compassion. By all accounts, not just the Bible, he had a compassion for women, for slaves, for lepers, for poor people. He engaged them all. We really can’t know what those engagements were like. We only have these indirect stories like the one we read this morning. Jesus enters a home and is having a discussion, the women are included, which would have happened about as often in Jesus’ time as it happens today in Syria or Saudi Arabia, almost never. You probably noticed that there are literally no women on the streets of the protests during the Arab Spring. Women are in the home, behind closed doors, almost all of their lives.

In our story women are included. One of the women, Martha, is doing the normal duties that were expected of women in that patriarchal world, being the hostess. The other woman, Mary, has joined the discussion. Then as now, Martha complains that she is doing all the work. But Jesus commends Mary for engaging in the discussion. He blessed her in public, a thing simply never done in that social world. So, you have to imagine that Jesus was one of those leaders about whom people say, ‘when I spoke to him, it was like I was the only person in the world’. Truly transformative leaders have that quality about them. They engage people deeply.

It is said that Mohandas Gandhi had that quality. It is said that Bobby Kennedy had that quality.

Something happened to Bobby Kennedy after his brother died that appears to have been a rather profound spiritual transformation. Perhaps, enduring the tragic death of his older brother, seeing what awful pain that wreaked on his family, he found a deeper empathy with the suffering of other people.

In the PBS documentary on his life, he was in Mississippi listening to poor, black sharecroppers talk about the plight of poverty and ignorance, the daily suffering that they faced. He was behind schedule and his staffers kept urging him to get in the car so they could make the next campaign stop. They were a bunch of earnest white law students from Yale and Harvard. One of them said, exasperated, ‘Your people are waiting for you an hour from here (in New Orleans).’

Bobby Kennedy finished his conversation with a few sharecropper families on the front porch of their falling down house, then he turned back to his staff and said, ‘You don’t understand, these are my people’. The staffers later remembered that moment as very moving because it was apparent to them that Bobby Kennedy wasn’t just running for office, he was genuinely empathetic, interested and was becoming a servant leader, a model rare then, and rare now. Something had changed in him, a spiritual transformation.

What a moving thing for people who have long been ignored or marginalized to feel like someone paid attention to them and listened to them. You know how you feel when people really listen to you? Like you matter…

We could use better listening in our world couldn’t we? It turns out that, anecdotally, the number one reason that women cite for divorce is that their husbands didn’t listen to them.

Professor Deborah Tannen was addressing “a small gathering in a suburban Virginia living room — a women’s group that had invited men to join them. Throughout the evening, one man had been particularly talkative, frequently offering ideas and anecdotes, while his wife sat silently beside him on the couch. Toward the end of the evening, [Professor Tannen] commented that women frequently complain that their husbands don’t talk to them. This man quickly concurred. He gestured toward his wife and said, “She’s the talker in our family.” The room burst into laughter; the man looked puzzled and hurt. “It’s true,” he explained. “When I come home from work I have nothing to say. If she didn’t keep the conversation going, we’d spend the whole evening in silence.”

This episode crystallizes the irony that although American men tend to talk more than women in public situations, they often talk less at home. And this pattern of public speech and private quietude does not help in producing healthy whole relationships. [i]

As you might imagine, researchers believe that a good deal of the difference is gender related. Says Professor Tannen, “For women, as for girls, intimacy is the fabric of relationships, and talk is the thread from which it is woven. Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets; similarly, women regard conversation as the cornerstone of friendship. So a woman expects her husband to be a new and improved version of a best friend. What is important is not the individual subjects that are discussed but the sense of closeness, of a life shared, that emerges when people tell their thoughts, feelings, and impressions.

“Bonds between boys can be as intense as girls’, but they are based less on talking, more on doing things together. [like walking down the fairway together, some talk but not too much please]. Since they don’t assume talk is the cement that binds a relationship, men don’t know what kind of talk women want, and they don’t miss it when it isn’t there.

“Boys’ groups [on the playground] are larger, more inclusive, and more hierarchical, so boys must struggle to avoid the subordinate position in the group. This may play a role in women’s complaints that men don’t listen to them. Some men really don’t like to listen, because being the listener makes them feel one-down, like a child listening to adults or an employee to a boss.”[ii]

Listening attentively is just one of those things that keeps us emotionally attuned and empathetic. It is not just hearing, it is also being able to read non-verbal cues. We’ve initially studied some 7,000 couples from 18 countries and found that ‘the benefits of being able to read non-verbal cues include ‘being better emotionally adjusted, more popular, more outgoing, and – perhaps not surprisingly- more sensitive. In general, women are better than men at this kind of empathy. And those people that… show they have a talent for picking up empathy skills- also had better relationships with the opposite sex. Empathy, it should be no surprise to learn, helps a great deal with your romantic life.”[iii]

Actually, when we did the research on couples and their love life by actually taping ordinary conversations that they have with one another, what we found was that couples with really solid romantic lives had  very little correlation with  how hot they are, not that there is anything wrong with looking good.

No, the best correlation turned out to reside in the most pedestrian place, in the hours and hours of simple conversation, like two people reading the paper. One of them looks out the window and says, “Wow, look at the size of that hawk flying overhead.” And the spouse says, “Yeah, it reminds me of the one we saw at the beach earlier in the summer. I wonder what kind of hawk it is?”

We have hours and hours of very ordinary, somewhat boring tape. But researchers figured out that “when couples engage in lots of chitchat like this, [you] can be pretty sure that they will stay happily married. What is really happening in these brief exchanges is that the husband and wife are connecting- they are turning toward each other. In couples who go on to divorce or who live together unhappily, such small moments of connection are rare. More often the wife doesn’t even look up from her magazine- and if she does, her husband doesn’t acknowledge what she says.”[iv]

It turns out that these mundane exchanges are more important than you know. Your spouse calls you on your cell phone because you are shopping for dinner that night and your spouse is on her way home from the commute. She says, “you know, I think we might be out of eggs.” And your winning answer is something like, “I’m not sure about that but, just to be sure, I’ll pick some up.”

You can spend a huge amount of money wooing your spouse, jetting away to the Bahamas’ right about now, and setting up dinner by the crisp green ocean, but this is a lot cheaper, and it actually works better.

Your spouse calls you in the middle of the day to complain about a major headache at work and you are in the middle of a meeting. Your insightful response is “Honey, this is not a good time for me. Can you give me the 30 second version so we can talk about it tonight?”

Professor John Gottman, who has 20 years of tape now, calls these exchanges, ‘bids’. Your spouse needs “some attention, affection, humor, or support.” And your response is either to turn towards them or to turn away.

He loves these episodes because now he knows. Great romance is not actually to be found in Brad Pitt wrestling Penelope Cruz on the beach, although that would be a great piece of tape. He says, “my favorite scenes are the very ones that any Hollywood film editor would relegate to the cutting floor. I know there’s deep drama in the little moments: Will they read the Sunday paper together or silently alone? Will they chat while eating lunch? Watching them is suspenseful because I know: Couples who turn toward each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married. Those that don’t eventually lose their way.”[v]

What we are doing here is making a deposit in our emotional bank account. The more you put in, the more have to draw upon in the future. How is your spouse doing on their deposits?

How you answer that likely tells you quite a bit about your relationship at the moment. “In one research study… happy couples noticed almost all the positive things that their partners did. Unhappy couples underestimated their partners’ loving intentions by 50%.”[vi]

You know the cycle of your day and week. You have to figure out how and where is a time you can listen to your spouse (or your good friends) and let them unpack what they are going through at the moment. Obviously, this can’t be manipulative, it has to be genuine. But like a lot of things in life, just start doing it and your interest in it will emerge from doing.

Show interest in them. Communicate that you understand what they are going through. Don’t give advice, especially not if you are a man. (Men have a noticeable tendency to jump in too quickly) Your spouse does not need you to solve their problems. But what they do need you to do is take their side for a bit. There is a time for advice and criticism that your spouse can hear and it is only after, probably a fairly good bit after, you have made clear you understand and support their cause. Part of attentive listening with your spouse especially- is about solidarity. It is about the two of your taking on the world together. You have their back. You are in their corner. So be affectionate and validate their emotions. You are trying to soothe them to some extent and support them. That is the object.

Here is an example of how we don’t do it. This is an example of the way it goes when we are not emotionally attuned to our spouse. And all of our closest relationships with our spouses, our extended family, have good days and bad days. This is one of Bob’s bad days. He is just not clicking.

Sara walks in the kitchen and says to Bob, “I had another terrible meeting with Shannon today. She keeps challenging my knowledge, and she’s been going to the boss telling her that she doubts my competence. I hate her.

Bob:        It sounds like another example of you flying off the handle and overreacting (Criticizing) I’ve seen her be very constructive and reasonable. Maybe you are just not being sensitive to her concerns (Advice giving that sides with the enemy).

Sara:        The woman is out to get me.

Bob: That is your paranoid streak coming out. You’ve gotta get a handle on that  (More criticism)

Sara:        Oh, forget it as she pours a glass of wine and walks into the other room to turn on the TV

Emotionally out of tune, not in helpful listening mode, and not going to get you where you want to go either. Sometimes we are just off.

What does it look like when we are on? What does it look like when we left our spouse blow off some steam and give them some emotional resonance, a little solidarity with their feelings? It looks a little more like this. Sara comes into the kitchen.

Sara:        I had another terrible meeting with Shannon today. She keeps challenging my knowledge, and she’s been going to the boss telling her that she doubts my competence. I hate her.

Bob:         I can’t believe that woman. She fights mean and she is a gossip (We against them) What did you say to her in the meeting? (expresses genuine interest and concern so they can unpack)

Sara:        I told her that she is just out to get me and that it won’t succeed.

Bob:         Those actions could make anyone paranoid. I’m sorry she is putting you through this. (Express a little affection). I’d like to get even with her too. (more “We against them”)

Sara:        So would I, but I think I just have to ignore her and forget about it.

Bob:         Your boss has to know what she is like. Everyone else does.

Sara:        That is true. The boss doesn’t say much about it but she goes around telling everyone that they are incompetent but her.

Bob:         That has to backfire.

Sara:        I hope so or I’m going to get an ulcer.

Bob:         This is stressing you out! I can understand why (Validating emotions). You know she has to be giving her husband an ulcer.

Sara:        Good Lord!

Pour a drink, perhaps, change the subject and move towards a pleasant dinner.

Mission accomplished. Your spouse has been heard. You’ve turned toward them, listened and expressed solidarity. Now they can turn towards some other things. You know and I know that most of the distance that we develop in our relationships is not so much malicious as it is just mindless inattention that takes your spouse for granted.[vii]

Now when we think about respect, it entails a sense of allowing ourselves to be influence by our spouse in a deeper fuller way. It is about being an attentive listener. It is about being a compassionate presence.

In the Bible, when you are emotionally, spiritually, morally clueless they have an expression for you. Jesus used it too. “Seeing, they do not see. Hearing, they do not hear.” They are not getting it, not for lack of factual presentation but because they are not tuned in.

The beautiful thing is, we can all get better at listening. We can all bless others. And if we can create that sense of ownership, that we are all part of this team and we are invested in it, we can do great things and endure difficulty to the end. And all the time, we will be tracking towards one of the fundamental keys of joy and fulfillment that this life has to offer. Engaging your better self.

And trust me, when I get home today, one of my grandchildren will ask what the sermon was about and my wife will say, “It was about Jesus”. Good luck next week. Amen.


[i] “Sex, Lies and Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?” by Deborah Tannen in The Washington Post, June 24, 1990.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence” (New York: Bantam, 1995, p. 97.
[iv] Gottman, John and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work  (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 79.
[v] Ibid. p. 80.
[vi] Ibid. p. 84.
[vii] Ibid. p. 92.

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