One of the things that participants in civic reflection discussions most often say is that the practice helps them become better listeners. Stated in the abstract, this can sound like a cliché. What does it really mean to learn to listen well in the context of our daily work?
Since the summer of 2011, my daily work has centered on supporting Reflective Reading, a civic reflection program for hospice and palliative care teams. Here is a palliative care physician at a large teaching hospital, talking about the practical impact that Reflective Reading has had on her care of patients and families:
I was mediating a discussion among four adults who were trying to decide on medical care of their mother, who was critically ill in an intensive care unit, who couldn’t speak for herself. And the children did not all agree about decisions about her medical care. And I actually found myself using my tricks of biting my tongue or sitting on my hands, or... I actually have to do physical things to make myself be quiet. And I found myself using those too, and I let them talk more where in the past I would have tried to guide them to whatever conclusion I thought they perhaps ought to make, or what conclusion I saw they were really leading to. And I just found that I was more able to sit there and listen to them hash this out. And it was probably more valuable to them. So I definitely listened more… Although they didn’t necessarily make a decision that everybody agreed with, they all felt they had been heard. And I think that was the important part of that situation.
I think [Reflective Reading has made] me more able to listen, more open to just listening to somebody’s opinion and not necessarily having to respond to it. Being able to hear it and acknowledge it. And not worry about how it made me feel personally, just witness it.
This doctor’s “just witness it” reminds me of a passage from Simone Weil’s Waiting for God:
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.
When it works as it should, civic reflection creates a space in which this rare kind of non-defensive, full and open attention can happen.