The Listening Mission: Learning to Hear Each Other in Times of Noisy Saber Rattling

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It seems that we are all too eager to pick sides nowadays. 

My wife, Bonita, asked me earlier this week how and when I was going to write about counseling victims of gun violence, the kids march on Washington and important issues of the day which divide our country. Memories came of being an eleven year old on the Edison Grade School playground in Danville, Illinois way back in the dark ages.  A baseball game was about to commence.

Captains were appointed by our teacher and then the chosen boys began picking their favorites, or the most talented as team-mates. Sides quickly developed.  Friends became immediate rivals and the game began. We decided to be The Cubs vs The Yankees.

Young Mickey Mantle faced Don Cardwell.  Little Ernie Banks faced Whitey Ford.  It was 1961 and hard for a boy not to love the Yanks…but we lived in Cub Country.  What are ya gonna do? When the game was over, despite heated arguments about who was safe on first, and what the strike zone was, we all became friends again.

Wouldn’t it be great if it worked that way in all our affairs?  But today we often make hard and fast binary choices which create permanent teams.  This ‘adult’ kind of side picking just isn’t working very well.

Finding Common Ground through Deeper Listening

We have worn ourselves out with fist shaking.  It is time for some really deep listening.  We who are Chaplains, students, human service providers, educators, youngsters, counselors, and folks from every walk of life who believe in freedom cannot rest until the possibility for common ground is reestablished.

I learned a lesson about listening from a group of eight sexually abused boys who were participating in group therapy with me.  We were working on the 12 Steps and they had received a Second Step assignment at the previous session to identify a ‘Power greater than themselves’.  These kids suffered things that most of us can never imagine.  They were tough survivors in small packages who protected themselves by keeping everyone at an arms distance.  I found that it was more important to hear what they weren’t saying.

But finding common ground in something greater than their abuse and bigger than their addictions was an important milestone to achieve for each of them and for the group.  Each session always began in moments of silence.  They hated that.  But it allowed them to find a quiet safe zone from which to begin.  On this day, one after another, they revealed their ‘Higher Power’.  Shane chose a traditional God, Michael chose The Universe, Jason chose numbers (no beginning and no end).  Then came Thad.  He chose a doorknob.

The group burst into laughter and he became red-faced.  I quieted the guys and asked Thad to explain.  He said that he had seen a picture of Jesus standing in a garden knocking at a door.  He had noticed that there was a doorknob on the inside of the cracked open door but none on the outside.  He then glared at the other boys and said; “That’s my Higher Power.  I get to choose whether to open the door or not.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.  Laughter had been replaced by little sobs.  We had listened deeply to Thad.  His wisdom opened us all to new possibilities.

Giving Advice, Good Counsel and Talk is the Easy Fix…Try the Listen First Project

My training as a counselor and therapist emphasized listening over talking.  This can be a tough practice when people who come to me are overtly seeking direction.  They say they want me to tell them which way to turn.  They beg for solace, wisdom and comfort from my words.  They want for someone to fix things, to ease the pain and guide them to safe shores.  But I have found when I follow their desire and offer interventionist management that my clients are seldom helped for very long.  It is dangerous and presumptuous of me to think I know what is best.  Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J. recently told me that ‘we can shine a beam of hope on the light switch but it is up to the individual to turn it on or not’. Carl Jung said the therapist has been invited into a patient’s sacred inner temple and that we must remove our shoes before entering. He often told stories rather than give advice. The short of this is to say that we always bring bias and pre-judgment to the table.  This is why it is so important to listen carefully, thoughtfully and tenderly.  Unless there is a severe mental illness blocking the way, every person has a pretty good idea of where they need to go and what they need to do.  We just need to shine the light in the right direction to help them see the way to their own answers.

Chaplains know better than most about the power of listening.  They are called in times of crisis to be present without fixing people.  They learn that being there, often in silent oneness, for those who are grieving and in pain is more powerful than any words or evangelizing could hope to be.  They bring psychological and spiritual healing as they experience gut wrenching stories of loss happens with deep listening and empathy. This ‘Listening Presence’ is perhaps the most critical skill a Chaplain can develop.  It is the tool they will use more than any other.

This active listening approach is used in business and community affairs to reach goals and solve problems.  Lee Iacocca, the automobile industry genius said; “Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk.” The Listen First Project has identified four drivers to improve economic results.

  • Discover what listening means to your employees, each person’s listening style, and how to build your team around a common set of core principles
  • Learn effective listening techniques and specific behaviors that drive results
  • Practice the skills necessary to become a professional listener
  • Engage employees beyond the workshop by infusing communications with Listen First principles that foster a positive team listening environment

Listen First is a ‘movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time’.  They have been instrumental in bringing healing to communities around the country. Their National Week of Listening began on April 20th of 2018 in Charlottesville, VA (#ListenFirst).  In an age of ever increasing division and polarization, this group is offering hope. The first step is to take their Pledge:

“I will listen first to understand and consider another’s views before sharing my own. I will prioritize respect and understanding in conversation. And I will encourage others to do the same.”

Creating Safe Places for Listening

People don’t feel safe sharing their opinions.  Even though there is quite a bit of ranting on Face Book, Twitter and other social media, most of us put on a brave face and don’t engage. A woman I know and have helped over the years is struggling with the binary choices and ponderous polarization that her son is experiencing in a northern high school.  They moved from the south a few years ago.  She confided in me that “my son gets “bullied” by his peers AND teachers for wearing Trump, NRA or God Bless America items. Todd (not his real name) is a responsible long gun competitor.” The young man is dating a girl whose mother has strong “liberal” principles and exerts quite a bit of influence over her daughters thinking. The girl and Todd have to hide his beliefs or she would never allow them to see each other. Additionally, my former client feels unable to tell people about her strong fundamental Christian faith or political preferences for fear of being chastised and shunned by her community.

I wonder what it might be like if we created Listening Missions in our places of work, play and worship? Imagine regular meeting places and times where ideas, differences and possibilities were really heard, honored, discussed and processed. I am sure that we would find some brilliant solutions.

Then there is the former Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP) now known as The Listening Project, which is a group offering help to organizations and communities. Back in 1981, The Rural Southern Voice for Peace, founded by Herb and Marnie Walters in Celo, North Carolina, began a “deep listening” fellowship which has become The Listening Project.  My best friend from Danville, Steve Magin was one of those engaged in starting community listening projects (CLP’s).

These CLPs are a comprehensive listening, organizing and action process that can take grassroots organizing to new levels of skill and success. They also organized Facilitated Group Listening (FGL) which is another communication and action program offered by Listening Project. FGL enables larger groups of people to come together at the same time, to address differences, commonalities, problems and solutions. It is structured so all participants agree to a contract that protects each person’s right to be heard and respected. Listening takes place in small groups that are guided by a trained facilitator.

They can be reached at Rural Southern Voice For Peace ~1036 Hannah Branch Rd., Burnsville, NC 28714 or 828.675.4626 or

We Have the Bully Pulpit

Our 26th President, Teddy Roosevelt, recognized that his office gave him a unique platform from which to listen, advocate and act.  He called it the Bully (wonderful) pulpit. Our influence as servant leaders offers just such a platform and means to facilitate listening.  We can shape a new conversation where win/lose or compromise are transformed to cooperation. When we compromise everyone has a stake in the loss.

When we cooperate everyone has a stake in the win.  We will have facilitated common ground and new ways to succeed are established. Our children are watching, pleading and demanding our cooperation in ending the stalemate that comes from polarization.  They showed up and demonstrated across the country to make their point.  We must begin to listen…and to hear each other in radical new ways.  We share the bully pulpit.  Let’s find a way to create Listening Missions wherever we serve.

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Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.

In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.

His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.

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Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast


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