This week’s guest blog is courtesy of The Rev. Gregory Han who describes himself as “half-Asian, Midwestern-raised, Jesuit-educated, Harvard-trained, Texas-residing, Presbyterian Minister.”
Since moving to Houston in 1998, Greg has worked at the intersection of religion, education, and dialogue. After a year as a hospital chaplain, Greg served Presbyterian congregations for eight years. He then taught courses in the study of religion and ethics, as well as high school English literature, for six years. He’s also taught at the Honors College at the University of Houston. Since summer 2014, he has served as the Director of Interfaith Relations & Education at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. In this position he speaks and teaches widely across the Houston area. He holds degrees from Georgetown University and Harvard Divinity School.
#ListenLearnLove by The Rev. Greg Han
Listen. It seems such an easy thing to do, though I want to open by saying that reflections on listening privileges people who are able to physically hear. I think, though, by the end of this post, you’ll understand that listening involves much more than just a physiological phenomenon.
Listen. The first notion that comes to mind is the act of receiving the physical impulses created by sound waves. Of course, that’s a very sanitized definition; so much more is involved that I think we take for granted. I learned a great deal about listening, about listening with the goal of understanding, when I was a hospital chaplain. I learned that what I thought was listening in a conversation was the last thing I was doing.
My eyes were opened (or my ears were opened!) to the fact that, when I was listening, I was usually just waiting my turn to talk. As I spent time in hospital rooms, with people who could not leave, people who were often in pain, people whose health crises had brought them to think about many things, they would talk to me, but part of being a hospital chaplain is understanding the words behind the words.
“You weren’t listening.”
There’s a teaching story I remember well that my supervisor told of a chaplain trainee. The student chaplain was visiting a patient, seeking to talk about God with the patient, who was a dairy farmer. The farmer wanted to talk about was how much he missed his farm, and especially his cows, who he cared about deeply. The trainee returned back to the supervisor and commented, “I tried to talk with this farmer about where God was in life, but all he wanted to talk about was his cows.”
The supervisor replied, “he was, but you weren’t listening.” It’s not that the farmer thought that the cows were God or gods, but the trainee was missing how he was bringing his own suppositions to his listening and letting them dictate what he heard. He wasn’t listening to the other person. And I haven’t even touched upon the non-verbal ways in which we “talk” to one another that we often miss. There are words behind the words that we all need to listen for.
“Listen people into being.”
That’s why part of being a chaplain, particularly in a hospital that often dehumanizes the human experience, requires that we “listen people into being.” I think you know what I’m talking about; you all can think of a time when you felt a person really heard you, that sensation of being truly heard. It’s not about another person’s ability to receive the sensory input accurately; there’s something more to it. In my Christian tradition, there’s a verse in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus shares a story, and then gives this exhortation, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
This passage has always stuck with me because Jesus seems to be making a distinction between the ability to hear (having ears), and the ability to hear (take in the message and understand it). Jesus knew that just being able to hear was different than understanding, and even a difference between understanding the meaning of the words and what the person is really saying.
Listening to understand
This sort of listening, listening to understand not just the words, but the person saying the words, is about more than the physical act of listening. It’s also having a heart for listening, the intent of listening, making the conscious choice of “I am going to go into this conversation to understand who this person is as much as what this person is saying.”
This is a skill and one that needs to be practiced! It is a skill that is sorely missing right now, as we seem to be talking past one another in so many crucial conversations. Listening is not just a soft skill; I would argue it is a sorely missing element of how we make connections, respect one another, and discover lasting solutions.
Greg oversees a variety of programs at Interfaith Ministries designed to help people listen to one another. For starters, I encourage you to sign up for the August 11 Dinner Dialogue event. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event is being done on-line. It’s a terrific way to meet people around Houston from a variety of faith backgrounds.
Thank you for taking time to read this guest blog. Share it with a friend or sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I’m always looking for leads about good people doing great things. If you have someone to suggest for a future HowWiseThen blog, let me know. I have a variety of ‘thank you’ resources waiting for you at my website.