It is not our differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.
Margaret Wheately

How do we listen to others? It’s critical in this time of increased polarization that we learn to connect and work across lines of difference, whether the “other” be family, neighbor, or fellow citizen. Listening is where we start.

During the month of May, 2017, I led a series of evenings at Healing Circles Langley to engage in reflective activities designed to crack open our appreciation of otherness.

Together, we explored—through the writings of Henri Nouwen, Parker Palmer, Margaret Wheately, John O’Donohue, Rumi, and others—how to move from self-protectiveness and fear to hospitality, so that our gracious listening can help heal what Desmond Tutu called our “radical brokenness.”

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends…

…Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.

Henri Nouwen (in Reaching Out)

So often we feel right—and righteous—about our views. So much so that we may not extend to others the space and grace to be fully who they are, and increasingly tend to think of the world in terms of “us” and “them.” The good news, says Parker Palmer in Healing the Heart of Democracy, “… is that ‘us and them’ does not have to mean ‘us versus them.’ Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences.”

We practiced the art of asking honest and open questions—questions to which we could not possibly know the answer, questions that do not couch our own hidden assumptions, opinions or agenda. This life-long practice helps us take the time to understand another’s point of view—without judgment—especially if it’s different from ours.

Gracious listening requires a hospitable heart, a compassionate presence, a willingness to hear another’s story, a commitment to not “fix,” a willingness to suspend judgment and turn to wonder, and a willingness to hold each story in confidence.

What kind of a world could we create if we each practiced gracious listening?

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

Terry Tempest Williams