Too Busy not to Listen
01 April 2004

In this rushing busy world do we take the time and care to listen to the other?

There is so much talk today— sound-bites, TV, radio, mobiles, internet chat. Do we take time to listen, even to think?

We sometimes comment ‘I hear you’, but do I listen to what is behind the words—the pain or the joy, the fear or the hope, the desperation or the cry for help? How often those engaged at community level hear the complaint, ‘They don’t listen!’

'In this rushing busy world do we take the time and care to listen to the other? Do we take time to listen to what is deepest in our hearts, to ensure we are on the right road and not rushing in the wrong direction?

One of the greatest gifts that my mother gave me, when I was 12, was to teach me to listen in quiet to that inner voice before the day began. I see it as taking time to seek God’s purpose and plan for my life and in my dealings with others. Others might express it differently.

I started out with 10 minutes first thing in the morning. Now I find I need an hour. It is a time of seeing where I need to change and put thing right, and also of seeking insights on my dealings and relations with others, on priorities at home, on the job out in the world.

One of my mentors over 20 years ago was Chief Executive of the City Council of Liverpool for 13 particularly crisis-racked years. He had started the practice of beginning the day with a time of quiet when he was a student and he told me that it had led him, as a young solicitor, to Liverpool rather than taking a comfortable job in a more rural setting.

During his years as Chief Executive, when it looked as if the situation in the city would ‘blow up in his face’, he would bring all his fears and apprehensions into those daily times of quiet, let go of them and pray. Sometimes he would get a thought, act on it and crisis would be averted. He said that it also sensitized him to unexpected ideas which might come in the middle of a busy day.

On one occasion, he was sitting at his desk in his office writing a letter to another department elsewhere in the city. He had an arresting thought that he should deliver the letter himself by hand — not something that a Chief Executive would normally do. As he approached the other office, he met a member of the government from London, whom he had not known was in the city. They had a private conversation in the corridor, which prevented a crisis that could have had disastrous consequences in the city.

Over a number of years I have been involved in the sometimes very confrontational struggle on race equality issues in Liverpool. One morning, when things were particularly tough, I had the thought, ‘If you find someone difficult, open your heart wider and walk towards them.’ I have been astounded how this approach has enabled me to build relationships of trust and comradeship in situations I would have never expected. Often it has helped me to see that I am the one that needs to change first.

At one point when I was pondering some difficulties a colleague and I were having, I realized that what I had seen as my support for this colleague was in fact ‘control’, as was my keenness on communication between us. You may recognize the sort of attitude I mean: ‘He is meant to be working with me, so why doesn’t he...?’ This subtle control leads to frustrations, lack of understanding and misunderstanding on both sides.

Since then, we have been moving towards a relationship where we put all the cards on the table without demand, and with a level of transparency that is risky in the sense that it reveals what a difficult cuss I am. Yet, when I seek the best for both of us rather than what suits me, this lays a sound basis for community.

Amidst the pressure, pain and puzzlement of today’s world, the much neglected practice of listening — both to the other and to the inner voice — is crucial.

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