“It might be cancer.” When those words were spoken, it wasn’t clear who was more stunned—Michael or me. He was our beloved small group pastor. A true people person, Michael was the lubricant which kept staff friction to a minimum. Quick to laugh, he loved good steak, good wine, and good conversation.
We sat less than a foot apart in the small dining room, surrounded by 20 other church leaders. He was grooming me to teach them how to listen well. Everyone paired off and took turns sharing something personal for 10 minutes. The listener’s role was to take everything in without interrupting and then incisively mirror back what we had heard. But when the word cancer came out of his mouth, the game plan changed. I leaned in and asked, “Wait! What did you just say?” He repeated himself and when the enormity dropped in, we looked at each other and both started to cry. The previous day, Michael had visited a specialist in the hope of discovering the cause for his ongoing abdominal pain. He received the diagnosis of stage four colon cancer the following week and died 20 months later at age 36.
Seven years have passed since that morning in the church dining room, but I remember it vividly. Because we were focused on listening well, there was none of the normal half-tuned-in-half-tuned-out that I am guilty of far too often. It would have been so easy to miss the profound emotional connection that moment offered. In leadership situations, I’m often tempted to listen in a somewhat perfunctory “I’m listening so I can help you solve your problem” mode. But that morning, Michael needed me to be as vulnerable in my listening as he was in his sharing.
Research has confirmed that most of us listen at twenty-five percent of our capacity. Our tendency is to simultaneously listen and craft our response. Or—a more personal scenario for me—listen in a purposefully distracted fashion, giving off not-so-subtle clues that I really don’t want to be interrupted. Whoever is trying to talk to me, typically my children or husband, will get the message that I am not available. Prior to that morning with Michael, though guilt would wash over me for my selfishness, I stubbornly resisted the invitation to reform.
When Michael shared his life-is-about-to-change news with me, the Holy Spirit communicated in no uncertain terms that I was routinely missing many opportunities to love others simply by giving them my undivided attention. Because I want to love others well, this broke through my selfishness and compelled me to repent. I wish I could report that since then, I always drop what I’m doing and immediately tune into whoever is in front of me. Truth is, I could do better.
In those moments when I do release my precious agenda, open my heart, and lock eyes with whoever is in front of me, something holy happens. Without saying anything, I communicate, “You are worth my time. This moment of connection is more important than whatever I was doing five seconds ago.”
My husband and I were recently sharing a meal with a six other adults we barely knew. One man casually mentioned that he wondered what was going to come next in his professional life. I tuned in, mirrored back what he had just said, and asked if he had specific ideas. He looked surprised and responded, “Wow. You were really listening.” As I grow in this skill, it’s become clear to me that intentional listening is not exactly normative. This is unfortunate because all of us long to be heard and known.
Several months before he died, Michael thanked me for consistently checking in with him and listening to his concerns and fears. I still miss him, but I am forever grateful that he helped me learn how to offer others the sacred gift of listening.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images @dorothygreco.com or follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DorothyGrecoPhotography.