I spent yesterday with colleagues who are training for lay ministry in the Church of England: all of them experienced in and committed to the deep, tough work of listening. Those training for Pastoral Worker ministry reflect on listening in three spheres: listening to God, listening to self, and listening to others.
Yesterday wasn’t about listening. Yesterday we talked about the mission of the chuch: the work that each of us, as disciples is drawn into as we work for transformation; bringing integrity to that line of the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done” prayed, as Grace Thomas reminded us, not in the future tense but the present.
Yesterday wasn’t about listening. Except it was. Time and again conversation came back to the reality of mission not as “doing to”, but “being with”: as Sam Wells has so helpfully expounded in his recent work.
The work of being with starts and ends with listening. And Kathryn Mannix knows this too, using in her recent book Listen: How to find the words for tender conversations, the same language as Wells to argue that we root our work for others not in “interfering”, but in asking first, and listening, “Being with, walking alongside: not doing to” (118).
Mannix writes out of her context as a palliative care doctor, and yet she writes not only for the clinical environment, but for those who might find themselves needed to engage in tender conversation – that’s all of us. Using a clear structure on which to hang both treasures of wisdom and anecdotes that ground them – as well as the encouragement that it’s normal to get this wrong sometimes, that we get better with practice – she talks her readers through how to create, shape and finish difficult conversations, likening the art of conversation to a dance: “forwards and backwards, sharing and preserving the space” (3).
There is much in Mannix’s writing that we can bring into dialogue with questions of power and leadership. I remain deeply moved by Rosie Harper and Alan Wilson’s reimagining of an episcopal ministry rooted in attentive, responsive listening in To Heal and not to hurt: their exploration of harmful culture in the Church of England. Towards the end of the book, they reshape the narrative of one survivor of abuse, imagining how a tender conversation may have brought healing rather than fresh hurt.
Al Barratt and Ruth Harley, in Being Interrupted, touch on the power dynamics of tender conversations through Nelle Morton’s ideas of ‘hearing to speech’: “speaking first to be heard is power-over. Hearing to bring forth speech is empowering” (137). Mannix draws this out in her anecdote about ‘Mr A’ and ‘Jake’: “By suspending all judgement and offering him a space for shared thinking, Mr A surprised Jake, who was expecting a disciplinary conversation” (54).
Few within the Church of England would argue that attentive listening to others is unimportant, or irrelevant for the mission and work of the church. So why are we still so bad at it? Perhaps because we parody the ministry of listening as a passive add on to be done by those who are calmer, gentler, less busy, less important, than me? Sure – listening is not glamorous and it asks us to shut up. Dedicated, intentional, attentive listening is hard work. But it’s not passive, and it’s far too fundamental to God, to a life of faith, to what it means to be a human being, to be left as an add-on to the Church’s ministry, done by a gentle few, while the rest of us get on with the important work of talking.
There is also something much deeper for us to hear. Mannix’s writing didn’t just speak to me about one to one conversation. I wanted to draw out what tender conversations might look like not just in the pastoral encounter, but in the interactions of a group, a community, an (can we still say it?) institution, as it engages with the world around it. What might it look like for the Church to hear God’s call not to be the dominant voice, the place of knowledge, the loudest shouter, but instead to be the one who joins (not leads) the world in tender conversation? The place not where answers and solutions are given, however unasked for and unneeded, but where questions can be posed, the unspeakable can be uttered, and comfort can be found not in words, but in attentive, loving presence?
Mannix’s approach to listening and problem solving has echoes of a ‘Third Chair‘ approach to spiritual accompaniment, or an Appreciative Inquiry model of supervision: “Each person is best placed to solve their own difficulties; the style we have adopted is one of curiosity and interest, being present as a companion and not as an expert or ‘fixer’ (94). And so what might this look like not just in one to one settings, but as the Chuch engages with the world; as communities of faith engage with the places in which they are set? “Where are the listening spaces?” asks Mannix (257) and I want to shout out in response “over here!” – but are we ready for that task?
Might it be that as we enter a listening space we become aware that we stand on hallowed ground? Might it be that as we commit again to collecting, corporate listening to others, we hear the still voice of God in the most unlikely of places? Might it be that God will find us, once we quieten down and stop our desperate noisy search for and signposting to God?
I’ve made this much more complicated than it needs to be. And that is why I am so grateful to Mannix for writing something so accessible, readable and simple. Reading her work is like being taken by the hand and guided through a rich woodland of wisdom and practical tips. And if you get lost on the way, it hardly matters: her Listening Style Guide acts as a helpful map to refer back to. No panic necessary.
So we need to start small and we need to start big. We need to practice, time and again, this most simple but profound art of conversation, It doesn’t mean never speaking. It doesn’t mean we might not sometimes be able to offer insight, wisdom, direction.
But we have talked too loud for too long. As we emerge from a global crisis, as we wonder how on earth we begin to rebuild and serve and find the strength to go again, might it not be an idea, both locally and nationally and at every place inbetween, to stop, to listen, and to rediscover the art of tender conversation? I suggest we start with listening to Dr Mannix, who might just have something to say to us about the art of listening well.