Why Listening Across Spiritualities Is Hard (And So Is Assertive Spirituality!)

Why Listening Across Spiritualities Is Hard (And So Is Assertive Spirituality!)

Good morning! Often lately on this blog I’ve been digging deep into some sides of conflict issues I and others have been working out for ourselves. I’ll get back to the political moralities series next week. Today, because Thursday from 7-9 p.m. Central Time is the Assertive Spirituality (International Day of Listening) Online Listening Café about Listening Even When We Disagree Across Spiritualities, I’m going to use this space to outline some components of listening I often teach and illustrate potential blocks and solutions to each as a framework for Thursday’s discussion. But if you’re not going, still please stick around this article to the end–I think you’ll find it a useful overview of some of the big picture issues with listening and spirituality.

As it happens, this explanation is hopefully useful in getting at the broader issues of why listening to each other across spiritualities is so damned hard, whether we actually claim a spirituality or not. Because assertiveness requires awareness of others’ perspectives, it’s also a bit of a “state of the discussion” explanation of what I’ve been aiming toward here at Assertive Spirituality since the first post, though—and so I’m hoping even if you long have missed the event, that this will be a useful article.

If you’re here before September 20, 2018 at 7-9 p.m. Central time, you’re of course welcome to join into the resulting discussion over at the event page—those of us that will be there would love it if you can join us for the time itself, but if you absolutely can’t or want to help us pre-brainstorm, I’m going to load up the threads over there right after I write this. Start joining in anytime!

3 Types of Spiritual/Emotional, etc. Dysfunctions that Get Passed Off as Healthy

Before I dive in, though, let me talk briefly about what I’d like us to be talking about over on this event about Listening Even When We Disagree (Deeply) across Spiritualities. Because I want to make sure we get into that parenthetical I just wrote in at least 3 big picture areas I’m about to outline.

See, I don’t know if any of the rest of you get as annoyed as I do with the phrase “agree to disagree.” I have issues with it for a whole host of reasons (mostly having to do with having grown up in a culture of “Christian Nice”), but one is that the phrase can feel really dismissive of the very real genuine discomforts that come with deep moral differences and the pain that comes with deep wounds getting stirred up and genuine gripes getting shared.

So here are the three big picture categories of issues I see at stake in deep disagreements across spiritualities.

  1. Confusing Toxic Conflict Styles or Emotion Suppression as “Spiritual Ideals.” As I’ve been discussing in my “toxic sides of Christian…Nice” series and working toward explaining in the emerging “moral disgusts” series (here’s part 1 and part 2), too often we attribute things to our spiritualities (of all varieties, not just Christian) that are really visceral responses to conflict or emotion tell us to do.This problem often creates difficult situations where we may think people inside or outside our particular brand of faith and/or spirituality are “getting it wrong” because we’ve taken a very natural coping mechanism and turned it into a moral hill to die on. In many cases, to maintain these coping mechanisms, our psyches work extra hard to dismiss anyone who comes at things from a healthier way of doing things, which unfortunately blocks us from listening to those—either inside or outside our particular brand of spirituality—who may show us healthier modes of dealing with conflict and/or emotion.
  2. We Mean Well, But Have a Hard Time Communicating that We Do. In other cases, perhaps we and/or our spiritual people are actually coping well with conflict and emotion, and are willing to admit to wrongs in those areas and others regarding spirituality, but we’re just having a hard time communicating that in a way others can hear. Often this group is healthier and would be ready to engage in dialogue with a few more conflict communication skills (if you’re this person, stick around the site for those!), but gets frustrated for other people taking them for category #1 or #3.Those others may be having a hard time because of some outflow of the phenomenon I just explained—or perhaps we have a hard time getting through for a wide variety of reasons. Often we don’t even realize our spiritual beliefs are expressed in a way that feels disrespectful or diminishing to the humanity of others; or sometimes the other person or group falls into group #1 above and despite best efforts we can’t always get through.Often our communication, regardless of intentions, can unwittingly cause deep hurt to others and often blocks people’s ability to listen. Also, others who have been deeply hurt may have a justifiably hard time hearing us because they’ve been hurt deeply by one or both of the other types of categories I’m discussing here. I would argue that we need to take extra care in those cases.
  3. Socialized Defensiveness about Systemic Issues. In the final major set of issues I’ll discuss, sometimes the visceral things I mentioned above are associated with ways societal or interpersonal or organizational power structures build in blocks to relationships going well and listening taking place. Too often the people in higher up places on societal hierarchies have particular forms of visceral defenses that make it really hard to hear the valid points of those lower down the societal chains.In many situations, those with better societal positions have their own wounds, and they have a hard time acknowledging the rightful grievances of those in other societal positions because their visceral responses are causing a self-protective instinct, either for themselves or their societal group.This final phenomenon was addressed a bit in last week’s article about MLK and his views on the “white moderate,” but happens not just with race but on all sorts of levels (e.g., gender, race, citizenship) that often have little to do with staying consistent with the values of any or all kinds of spirituality, but again, often get justified unhealthily in terms of spirituality. This is where issues of social justice and spirituality come in.

So these are 3 big picture areas I’d like us to particularly keep in mind as we discuss listening when we disagree. I want the discussion to go deeper than dismissing these kinds of issues to get into how can we call each other on things across spiritualities when these kinds of knotty unspiritually motivated things get justified by our spiritualities? These are not easy issues to resolve, but I want us to try to take them on. That’s what I’m trying to do in the articles here overall, using the lens of my own experience as well as other problems I see, and sprinkling in terms from communication theory that can help me and others “get” what might be going on.

5 Listening Components

At any rate, I want to divide our conversation itself based on the 5 listening components I often teach (Interplay, the interpersonal communication textbook I teach out of, helpfully organizes listening research this way). So let me briefly break each one down here and give definitions. As you’ll see on the threads, in the event, I’d like us to discuss problems and potential solutions about listening to each other in light of the above issues in each of the below categories:

  1. Hearing. Hearing is often a synonym for listening in common language—even Jesus famously often ended his statements with “he (or she!) who has ears to hear, let him (or her!) hear.” But in terms of listening, hearing is used not for psychological blocks to listening, but for things that block the airwaves getting through. For instance, there may be physical noise in the room, or someone may have a hearing problem. One of my students just perceptively noted that written language may be a potential solution to problems with hearing issues in this technical sense—which means even when we can’t physically hear well, we can “listen” to one another in print.z
  2. Attending. This listening component is where focus and psychological effects come in. Too often, we interpret a lack of attention (or any other listening component) with feeling “unheard” psychologically. Which translates into feeling uncared for or disrespected—and that can cause relational damage at both individual and group levels. Lack of attention, for whatever reason it happens, is one reason for this.
  3. Comprehension.  We may be hearing (or reading) and attending until we’re blue in the face, but we may still have blocks to understanding what’s going on, and communicating that to others wittingly or unwittingly. This component gets at the parts of feeling “unheard” at this level. Solutions usually require more verbal than non-verbal communication.
  4. Remembering. A lot of spiritualities and religions were started in oral cultures, when people had better skills at remembering. In today’s technology, we often rely on our devices to “remember for us,” but things still get in the way of our using that body of “memory.” Also, stress and trauma can lead to all sorts of natural situations where a person’s memory may be literally blocked, for good or ill, by the body’s and mind’s attempts to deal with a trauma. This component may get at these aspects of memory and others that get in the way of “feeling listened to” through another remembering. (Note that questions of follow-through on what you said you were going to do, or on your values, also often come in here.)
  5. Responding. Last but far from least, this component of listening is the only way we as “listening listeners” have any way of knowing if another human or group has listened to us in any or all of the above senses. Without verbal and non-verbal ways of communicating that we’re listening, we’d have no way to make our relationships right, since as I mentioned, feeling “heard” is so naturally tied in to our natural human needs for belonging and respect. In these parts of the threads, let’s talk about the things that block us from communicating that we’re listening.

Well, that predictably took a bit more time to lay out than I expected it to. Thanks for hanging in to the end of the article (one more paragraph!). As I said, this article overviews how I would like the conversation focused over at the our Online Listening Café event. It also hopefully helps you understand some of what’s driving the other Assertive Spirituality content, both on the blog and over at our Facebook feed and Twitter accounts.

Overall Goals for This Assertive Spirituality Project

My overall goal is to figure out how to create a space where we can solve problems toward the common good of all, because that’s what assertiveness is all about. The problem is that many of the above issues get in the way of us listening well enough, especially across spiritualities and with those who do not feel spiritual, to dialogue well enough to get to the common good. That’s what I want all conversation here, both in the event and in the project as a whole, to reach toward. That’s my vision for this project. Thanks for visiting and listening at least enough to get to the end of this article! 🙂

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! For those of you participating in the event, I’ll see you back over at the discussions part of the event, where I’ll lay out threads according to problems and proposed solutions for each of the 5 listening components. Whether or not you’re planning to participate, please follow some of the links in the article if you want to hear more about any of the above. Thanks for your interest!

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2 thoughts on “Why Listening Across Spiritualities Is Hard (And So Is Assertive Spirituality!)

    1. Agreed completely. If you go on to read the original article about “Christian (Midwest Middle Class White People) Nice” (http://assertivespirituality.com/2018/06/04/the-toxic-spirituality-of-christian-nice/) you’ll see I’m definitely using that a shorthand for the dialect of Nice I grew up with. But I agree that it’s a much more widespread phenomenon–as does Martin Luther King, when he refers to it as the behavior of the “white moderates” in the recent article on this site about racial justice and “Christian Nice” (though he too was referring to those who called themselves Christians, for the most part). I would love to hear about others’ experiences with different variants of Nice!

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Why Listening Across…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 8 min