Written by the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Director of The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness in residence at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Bellevue, WA
The first word that marks the way to engage another is “listen.” It is often the last act we choose when we are surrounded by many who would and do scream for attention and for answers. It is the way that when in conflict we ought to embrace.
One of the ways I help teach folks, in my own words, toward ending homelessness is to teach what compassion is. Literally it means “to suffer with.” It is that way of being beside and with another person where we enter into what is real for them without the urge to remedy what we may see or what we may think we see is creating a problem for them.
To listen, we must empty ourselves of what we too often see as “technique” and “strategy” and in so doing open ourselves to truly listen. When we enter this way of being, we start to feel somewhat if not wholly helpless. To listen, we set aside the voices of remedy and resolution and solution. We simply listen, and perhaps repeat back what is spoken to be sure we hear clearly. A trusted technique that stops being technique as we use it is “reflective listening;” in short, simply repeating in the same or similar words what we just heard. At first it may wreak of technique but with a little practice it becomes as natural as what it is meant to be.
Of further value is the phrase, or a form thereof, indicating, “tell me more.” In this way of following along within a conversation, we join with another. We are not present as expert, as one who has answers. We avoid even suggesting we listen solely for the problem to emerge. What instead we navigate toward is a level place where both engage in a connection with dignity. Tell me more. Tell me your story…when you are ready.
A colleague named Joe tells the story about a pastor who said, “I want to learn more about tent city. What should I do?” My colleague said, “go, visit.” The pastor said, “But what can I take with me? What can I do once I am there?” Joe said, “Just go to the kitchen tent, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and sit down.” “What then?” asked the pastor. “You sit and you listen,” said Joe. The pastor said, “that’s not enough. I can’t go and just sit.”
Do we know that hearing the story is sometimes not only enough but more than enough? Our coming to anyone as problem-solver diminishes their dignity and in fact diminishes ours as well. Being willing to listen enables something to develop that our strategies simply cannot accomplish. It is trust. Via trust, those in a conversation move toward being partners, perhaps not solely by one conversation, but by successive ones. In the book, “The Little Prince,” author Antoine St. Exupery, indicates how the fox and the little boy return day after day to the same place, a little closer each day, practicing “a rite.”
It is by rites, by what becomes mutual and in ways we cannot mimic becomes an initiation of trust, that we build into ending homelessness the very renewal of capacity that has been silenced in too many ravaged by homelessness and its attendant and co-occurring harm. We likely will not be the remedy for the one to whom we listen. There are others for that. In that we must trust.
Listening is not a step we can afford to skip, and when we do, not only do we lose out on what will likely change us, but the one to whom we would listen loses out as well.