I remember a song from my youth with the same title as this article. Today, I think that “what the world needs now” is compassionate listening. Every four years, I sense the tension rise, as I am sure you do, when we elect a president. After the events at our nation’s capital on January 6th, the tension is higher than I can ever remember. Family connections, good friendships, church relationships, neighbors, all of those connections seem to be threatened. But, the conflict doesn’t have an inevitable conclusion. We, each one of us, can change the tone of conversations that happen around us.
Look at the story we call “the woman at the well”, in John 4. We see Jesus truly listening to the Samaritan woman. We can learn some things from the story to bring some peace in these tense times we live in.
Jesus was traveling with his disciples and stopped for a rest at the well. A Samaritan woman came to the well and Jesus asked her for a drink. A conversation ensued between two people that had vast political and religious differences. But it went well! Let me share a few things we can learn from Jesus and practice compassionate listening.
(If you do an internet search you will find that “compassionate listening” is a technical term in the field of conflict resolution. I am not using it that way here, but rather in a more general way that all of us can practice. But there are some similarities.)
Jesus’ Compassionate Listening
Set aside Differences and Judgements about the Other Person
The woman at the well was on the “other side of the aisle” from Jesus. She was a Samaritan, not a Jew, which meant she was ethnically different, her religious beliefs were “wrong”, she was considered unclean, and the list goes on. But Jesus lovingly interacted with her … both listening and talking. If we begin with good intentions rather than to “win” or “fix” the other person, things go much better. Beginning with a clear intention to listen, understand, and connect can change the outcome.
Seek to Really Hear the Other Person
When we listen to another with true curiosity about what may be at the heart of the matter for them, we can hear. We sense what it is like to stand in their shoes. When we acknowledge another person’s feelings, we often will discover the positive values they are expressing. But when we find ourselves talking more than listening, it’s probably more about us than about them. With the woman at the well, Jesus heard what was going on beneath the surface in her life.
Find Common Ground
In verse s 19-26 of the story we find that Jesus moved beyond the boundaries that divided them and moved to common ground – worshipping God. The Samaritans worshipped one way, the Jewish people another. Jesus moved to common ground between them, “worshipping in spirit and in truth”. Avoid debating about the facts, which hardens lines. Avoid labeling others, which too often reinforces a negative perception of the other person. But share your stories, which humanizes the other person and helps us move beyond what separates, and rather pulls us together.
I believe that the greatest gifts we can bring to others this season may well be the ones we don’t need to spend a dime on. The ones that might have a ripple effect of unknown positive impact somewhere down the line in a place we can’t yet imagine. Our own health—and that of our families, friends, country and, indeed, our planet depend on it!Andrea Cohen, author of Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening