Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Power of Listening

I love to listen to podcasts across a variety of topics. So when the stars aligned about a year and a half ago for me to start and host a podcast for the nonprofit organization I run, I picked up a microphone and jumped into this brave new world. The result was the Earth and Spirit Podcast on National Public radio.

I knew from the start that I wanted to try thoughtful, long-form journalism, drawing guests out on topics related to spirituality, social healing, and care for the earth. What I didn’t realize was how much podcasting would teach me about the art of good conversation.

When I’m getting ready to interview a guest, I do a lot of homework. I research my guests and their work. I read their books, study their organizations, and carefully think through what questions I would like to ask. Even before we hit the record button, I try to step into their world and their perspective.

In these conversations, my most important job is to listen, not say clever things or speechify in any way, but simply to draw out the wisdom of my conversation partner through deep, careful, attentive listening. This is hard for me, since I really like to talk. I have to cultivate an attitude of curiosity, openness, and a willingness to learn new things and be changed—which requires a certain vulnerability, compared to wearing the armor of a seen-it-all, know-it-all.

No matter how much I think through the structure of the conversation and prepare a list of questions ahead of time, when we’re actually recording a podcast, the conversation invariably takes on a life of its own. My guests and I never get to all of my questions or cover them in the order I planned. Often, we end up in completely new territory—which can be wonderful, but also a bit unnerving for me. I’m finding that once I can let go of my need for control, though, there’s great joy to be had in the discoveries that can occur in such freedom.

Reality Check

When I listen to the unedited recording of a conversation, I often cringe to hear how I “um,” “uh,” and stutter my way through it. With high-tech audio editing software, it’s possible—and really tempting—to airbrush all of that out. But the brilliant sound engineer I work with strikes a fine balance between cutting out what is distracting and leaving in the reminders that this is a conversation among human beings, who don’t go around reading from scripts.

I’m encouraged and excited to be learning about how to facilitate good podcast conversations. But what about all the other conversations that occur in day-to-day life, without microphones and the magic of postproduction editing?

How can I take those conversations as seriously, listen and learn with the same intensity, embrace spontaneity and imperfection? Because, if I’m being honest with you and myself, I often don’t.

How many times have I gotten distracted in the middle of an important conversation with my wife? How many times have I listened to one of my children with only half an ear, going through the motions but not fully present? How many times have I given the all-too-accurate impression that I needed and wanted to be somewhere else? The answer is heartbreaking: way too many times. And in life, unlike in podcasts, there are no second takes.

A Work in Progress

Fortunately, these skills are transferable. If I can learn to have good conversations for a podcast, I can have them in other realms too. The main thing I must do is always remind myself that all of the conversations I have from day to day are just as important—actually, they’re far more important—than the ones that get recorded and sent out into the ether as podcasts. They are worth my entire attention, even though they don’t provide the ego boost of download stats and positive reviews and even when, as is often the case, they are far more difficult and fraught than any on-air conversation I’ve ever had.

The poet David Whyte claims that there’s a conversational nature to all of reality, and I think he’s right. If we bring the right attitude, openness, and skill to it, every encounter can be a profound meeting, a new frontier of experience. That’s obviously true in conversations with other human beings.

However, I think it can and must also be true in our encounters with the rest of God’s creation—even if those conversations don’t happen in words. What would it be like to carry on conversations with trees, with rivers, with birds, bats, bugs, and all manner of creatures, even with the very land itself? Such questions may sound “out there,” but they’re not.

Those kinds of conversations are deeply rooted in the attitudes and practices of indigenous peoples, and they are part of our Christian tradition too. How else could the Psalms have been written, but in conversation with the mountains, valleys, and rivers of the Holy Land? How else could St. Paul write about the very creation groaning or Pope Francis claim that “the entire material universe speaks of God’s love”?

In the end, then, the capacity and willingness to have true conversations—public and private, with human beings or the more-than-human world—are spiritual practices. As National Public Radio StoryCorps producer Dave Isay puts it, “Listening is an act of love.” To love is to make room—in your head, your heart, and your life—for those conversations that matter most, in whatever context. It’s a muscle we’re born with and one that grows stronger the more we use it.

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