Developing a listening heart: The beginning of understanding
Oct 3, 2021, 1:00 PM
This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.
I have been studying what it means to truly listen. Listening is much more than recognizing sounds, words and phrases. True listening requires us to spiritually see and sense. It mandates that our hearts are as invested in the process as our ears. This is true whether we are listening to a spouse, child or friend, discerning the whisperings of the Spirit or seeking to hear the voice of the Savior or our Heavenly Father.
The journey of listening begins
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi to the United Kingdom was, and remains, one of the great moral voices of our day. Before his passing in 2020, I was blessed to conduct an extended interview with him. It would turn out to be one of his last public interviews. Despite the absence of his earthly presence, I have been learning from this great Rabbi ever since. In fact, Rabbit Sacks is the one who sent me on this exploratory journey into a listening heart.
I learned from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that the Hebrew verb sh-m-a, often interpreted as “listen,” has no single translation into English.
There is no single English word that means to hear, to listen, to heed, to pay attention to and to obey. Sh-m-a also means “to understand.” When combined these attributes of spiritual listening provide a powerful path to hearing in a higher and holier way.
When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied: lev shome’a, literally “a listening heart” to judge the people (1Kings 3:9).
The choice of words is significant. Solomon’s wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said. It is common to find leaders, teachers and friends who speak, but very rare is it to find those who listen. But listening often makes all the difference.
To listen, be still
An Apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, has spent his ministry on “matters of the heart, from describing broken hearts to offering the answers for healing hearts. Elder Holland described the heart as a listening organ and that such a heart was more important than ever to our relationship and connection to things human and divine.
Listening, especially spiritual listening, is becoming a lost art in our noisy, judgmental and often argumentative world. Lack of listening keeps us a safe distance from critical conversations and far away from deeper understanding, greater love and more inspired solutions.
Elder Holland shared that the beginning of a listening heart requires us to be still and to gain insight by getting away from the noise of the world in solitude.
Rabbi Sacks taught that, “Crowds are moved by great speaking. Lives are changed by great listening. Truly, it isn’t great speaking, but great listening that matters most. A speaker who can create space for attendees to listen with their heart invites inspiration, revelation and transformation to occur.
Heart-led listening with Elder Bednar
I observed this once when I followed Elder David A. Bednar of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a devotional he was giving in Rexburg, Idaho, in front of more than 12,000 college students.
Typical note-taking for university students is a stress-inducing, exhaustive experience filled with frenetic attempts to copiously capture everything the teacher is saying. When Elder Bednar stepped to the podium. Pens were poised, digital tablets were set to document and personal note-taking systems were ready to record his message in binders and journals. Elder Bednar humbly invited his listeners to do something different — and everything changed.
There was an initial rush to write and capture what Elder Bednar was saying. I admit I found myself racing to keep up. I then watched in amazement as Apostle of Jesus Christ taught those listening to listen different. He cautioned the crowd about how they were approaching their learning at the devotional.
“Don’t write down what I am saying,” he said. Then, conveying his trust in the audience and with distinct emphasis, he continued, “If you are hearing what I am saying, I am failing, and you aren’t truly listening.” What Elder Bednar was really doing was teaching that there is a pattern to learning with a listening heart.
The longer Elder Bednar taught, the fewer dictation-style notes were being taken – personal impressions, spiritually customized messages, personal testimony along with answers to questions known and unknown were carefully, thoughtfully and thankfully written.
As I looked around the hall, I observed the most intense listening and learning I had ever witnessed in such a setting. It was a still and silent edification. Those in attendance were developing a listening heart.
In his book “The Spirit of Revelation,” Elder Bednar described this as the Hearing-what-is-not-said principle.
We must “Be careful not to let the noise of your mind overpower the whispers of your heart. I see so much suffering when problems arise in marriages, families and communities because we have become so prone to rush in with accusations rather than ask questions and truly listen to responses with our hearts. Accusations discourage deeper dialogue and prevent elevated understanding. Sincere questions combined with compassion and a listening heart, fosters understanding and a new kind of listening.”
True listening is a strengthening spiritual act and the highest form of respect toward others. Heart-led, rather than head-led, listening reflects our determination to live as disciples of Jesus and love one another as He loves us. Such listening will enable us to see each other deeply, even as He sees us, and compassionately lift each other along life’s path.
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