“Listening and Being Heard”
By Rev. Ed Brock
From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibition of the work of artist Marina Abramovic. Her exhibit was more performance than conventional art and was called “The Artist Is Present.”
Two chairs were placed on opposite sides of a simple wooden table on the ground floor of a large atrium under a high ceiling. Marina, sitting in one chair, with head bowed and eyes closed, would be approached by someone who would sit in the chair opposite Marina. Marina would then raise her head, open her eyes, and looked into the eyes of the person on the other side of the table. The person seated in the chair would look at Maria, holding Marina’s gaze in his or her gaze for five minutes. When the person leaves, Marina bows her head and closes her eyes, until the next person comes to the chair, and it begins again. No talking or touching was allowed. Each person was coached on the rules before they sat down.
Marina did this seven hours a day, for several days each week, for three months. Seven hundred fifty thousand people attended the show over three months. Each day hundreds of people stood about around the periphery of the area to watch the two people sit facing each other. Many people began to weep when they sat across from Marina.
Why did so many people sit in silence, not moving, to gaze into Maria’s eyes for so long? Why did so many people each day stand on the periphery of this display?
I think this exhibit was so popular because it was about the experience of presence.
Presence is being with one another human being without needing or wanting or expecting anything from them. Simply being present to another, accepting the other without judgment, can be healing.
I think presence and its sisters listening and understanding are rare. Often, despite best intentions, something blocks our ability to be present and to listen to others genuinely.
A friend of mine, who I will call Fred, specializes in counseling couples. Fred regularly asks one partner of a couple to answer the question, “What would you like your partner to know about you?” and reply only directly to him while the other partner listens silently. Then Fred does the same with the other partner. Each partner is allotted the same amount of time to speak.
Often after such sessions, each partner will say “I never knew he/she thought that” or “I never knew what he or she believed about ________ until I heard them just now.” People who might have been living with one another for years or even decades did not know what the person they lived with thought and believed about a host of issues.
They had never really listened to the other person. Fred believed this was a widespread problem.
Fred stated that with some couples, the simple act of hearing an honest and authentic version of their partner’s thoughts and feelings led to an improvement in their relationship. An absence of presence erodes many relationships.
Some of the factors that undermine presence and blocks communication are:
Confirmation bias – if what I hear is not a version of what I think, believe, or want to believe, I shut the words out.
A desperate need to have my opinion prevail – if I wish very strongly to communicate my opinion, I will listen to you only so I can am sure that you will then be obligated to me.
Communication Scarcity – In a world where listening and being listened to are ever rarer, people become starved to get to be heard, and less able to listen to others.
Anxiety – the more anxious a person is, the less they can listen to anything outside their thoughts.
Time poverty – modern life is fast-paced; time to be calmly present with another, and patient, seems impossible to find.
Rise of electronic media taking the place of direct and unmediated human interaction – human interaction can be tedious and challenging, compared to texting you and choosing to reply or even respond at my pace.
The increase of ways information flows toward us – We live in a sea of messages. Twitter, Facebook, i-phones, tv, and radio are swarming around us like bees. By comparison, the act of being physically present and patiently listening and being heard by another seems antique.
Under the best of conditions, we have a hard time listening to one another. But that task is made even more difficult by the circumstances in which we live.
This difficulty is compounded by the increasing polarization and fragmentation of our society. Our society is beset by decreasing genuine relatedness, civility, and trust-building, as a counterforce to the growth of tribalism and polarities.
The coherence of society, and its ability to function for its members, depends upon society’s civility and zones of trust prevailing over mistrust and disrespect.
It is critically important for the times we live in to create circles of civility and trust. The practice of presence is an essential element in the process of building trust and civility.
The irony of our situation is that it is possible to precisely define what creates deeply satisfying communication: openness, transparency, mutual respect, acceptance of differences, and self- management.
And these factors create, over time, trust. This process, in my opinion, is one of the chief functions of religious communities.
Every religious tradition has teachings about genuine communication. It is not a matter of knowing what to do; it is a matter of doing the work required to make our relationships places where trust, mutuality, and safety, can grow.
Our religious movement, with its Seven Principles, and other standards for civility and the practice of presence, is well suited to be leaders in this great need in our times.