Listening, for Advanced Psychology Students
by Janet Frick
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.
In my developmental psychology classes, students learn about many clever tests that have been developed to test infants’ and children’s emerging understanding of the world. We learn about how babies search for hidden toys, how toddlers learn to navigate unfamiliar locations, and how adolescents problem solve. One particularly fascinating developmental milestone is the emergence of a concept known as “theory of mind.” In a nutshell, theory of mind is the ability to know that you may know something that someone else doesn’t know; that you and another person have different thoughts, different feelings, different points of view. It’s a tricky concept for children to master, and it usually begins to emerge between the ages of 4-5 (although it continues to develop for years).
I discovered that Colin’s “theory of mind” was emerging in a rather memorable fashion, not long after he had turned 4. We came home from being out somewhere, and he was in a foul mood; as memory serves, he was mad at me about something. He stomped down the hall and went into his room. I left him in there, happy to have a bit of a break! Well, after about 5 minutes, I heard him come out, and next thing I knew, he was sitting under the kitchen table giggling to himself. I peeked under there, and he burst out in laughter. “What’s so funny?”, I asked. He happily replied, “You don’t know that I just went in my room and called you stupid!”
Understanding that others have thoughts and feelings that are different from ours is a huge developmental achievement. However, the mere act of knowing that we and another person have different perspectives is not enough to help us live in harmony and communion. The next, and harder, step is figuring out what that person’s perspective actually is! And in order to do this, we have to listen — really listen — to their point of view, which can be such a challenge when we have our own point of view and our own feelings clouding our reaction to what they are thinking and feeling.
Just this past week (in timing that “ironically” coincided with the beginning of the Lenten season), a friend and I discovered that we each had been holding on to different — and limited — perspectives on a series of events that stretched back over months; each of us knew our own perspective on what had happened, but our interpretations of these events had diverged because we had not taken the time to discuss our feelings and really listen to each other. Getting to the bottom of this disconnect required both vulnerability and honesty, but also quiet, slow, “leave your ego at the door” listening. Not defensive “listening with the intent to justify or explain or share blame,” but listening with the intent to understand, to hear, to love.
The timing of this eye-opening conversation was serendipitous, to illustrate to me how the skill and discipline of listening has so many practical, spiritual applications. When we listen to others, we have to take the time to hear them as they are, not as we think they are or as we might wish they were. The same goes for our communion with God — listening to God requires us to quiet our hearts and minds to really hear what God would have us hear, and feel, and say, and do. We need to remember that our perspective is limited and clouded, and we need to take time to listen so that we can come closer to seeing, and hearing, and feeling with the mind and heart of God.
Prayer: All-loving and all-knowing God, help me to calm my mind, center my thoughts, and quiet my heart so that I may listen — truly listen — to your voice. What am I not hearing that I need to hear? What am I not seeing that I need to see? What am I not feeling that I need to feel? Help me to take on your eyes, and ears, and heart, throughout this season of Lent.