I’ve been a fan of Adam McHugh’s writing since his first book, Introverts in the Church. Recently, he released The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. It’s a book with a counter-cultural message, and a gentle spirit. I caught up with Adam to talk about it. I hope that this taste will whet your appetite for the entire book. You can listen to the interview below.
Cara Strickland: First, I just want to say, thank you so much for your book. I really appreciated the opportunity to read it, and I think it will be really encouraging to our listeners and readers.
Adam McHugh: I hope so too, it took me six years to write it, so I’d like to think that there’s some level of insight that’s in those 6 years of thinking.
CS: What do you see as some of the most prominent benefits to listening, for an individual?
AM: I think that when people think about listening, the first arena that they go to is their relationships, and especially if they’re married, they think about listening in the context of marriage or romantic relationships. So when people hear that I wrote a book about listening they assume that I’m going to talk a lot about those things, which I do. But the reality is, what inspired the book, for me, was how transformational listening has been in my own life. I don’t think I’ve encountered any discipline, and I’ll call listening a spiritual discipline as well, that has been quite as transformative as listening has been for me. I think what listening has taught me how to do is, when I approach every interaction, every experience, with the intention of listening first, I find that it opens me up in ways that I wouldn’t normally be open. I think it makes me more curious, I think it makes me more of of learner. It’s a very big difference when you walk into a situation with the intention of acting like the expert or saying the right thing, versus coming in with the intention of learning, even if the person that you’re talking to is younger than you or even knows less on a particular subject than you do. But if you can walk in as a learner, you’ll be surprised what you hear. I think it’s taught me how to be humble, so just to realize I don’t have all the answers and that that’s okay, it’s a very humbling process for me to learn how to listen. So I think that there’s a lot of character development that can come out of learning how to listen, and that’s what keeps me going back to listening, is just how much it’s transformed me as a person and as a believer.
CS: So moving from the individual to the relationship side of things, how have your relationships with others, and then also with yourself, changed since you’ve become more intentional about listening?
AM: I’ve learned a lot more about people that I thought I knew a lot about to start with. I did a series of interviews, which was a little awkward but it was fun at the same time. When I was working on the book, and I thought: ‘you know, I’m going to really try to put this into practice and I believe that not just listening once, but listening repeatedly to people is what is really important for our relationships and so I’m going to sit down with some friends that I’ve known since college, for a long time, and ask them questions that maybe I’ve never asked them.’ And it was quite eye-opening, even a little bit upsetting, to discover just how little I knew about some people’s personal lives, and their backgrounds, and what was important to them, even though I had known them for fifteen or twenty years. And so you just learn a lot about people, even people that you thought you knew really well, when you learn how to listen.
I’ve also found an interesting thing is that as I’ve devoted myself to listening to people, I find myself being heard more. It seems like that really opens up a level of intimacy and honesty in relationships, and when people have the experience of being truly heard, it makes you want to become a listener. So it’s interesting to see how that has shaped my relationships in multi-directional ways, and I think that when you practice listening, other people see how important that is, as well. So that’s been an interesting development.
One of the concerns that people raise when they read the book is: ‘well, but I want to be heard too, and if I focus so much on listening, am I going to be heard?’ and my answer is: absolutely. It’s going to change your relationships in a lot of different ways to learn how to listen.
CS: One of the things that I really took away from your book was that idea that when you’re listening to yourself well, it’s easier to listen to other people, because some of those needs are not being ignored by you. Would you say that that’s been helpful as you’ve started this journey?
AM: Absolutely. I have a whole chapter on listening to your life and it was when I had to do an internship at a hospital in order to become an ordained minister, and I really put that off for a long time, because I was scared, and I finally decided to do it because I really wanted to get ordained.
Before then I had been a preacher, and a teacher, and I always thought that my role was to walk into a room and bring whatever level of insight I could offer, or whatever word gifts that I had. I learned, working in the hospital and sitting with people that were undergoing radiation and chemo therapy and were dying of cancer, that there’s no words that I could really offer that was going to make them feel much better, that was going to fix them, or rescue them, in fact, even trying to speak a lot had a way of kind of distancing myself from other people and that was where I had to really learn how to listen. But, getting back to what you asked me, when you’re listening to people in pain, it brings up a lot of anxiety for you, and that’s, I think, often why we speak in those situations, because we feel anxious and we’re upset that other people are upset or we feel somehow that it’s our role to try and fix them. So I had to learn how to pay attention to that anxiety, and listen to what’s happening in myself as I’m listening to other people and be able to just acknowledge the anxiety. I had this kind of silly practice of just, in my internal world, saying ‘hello anxiety. I hear you, I see you,’ just as I’m sitting there with a patient at bedside. Even just that step, and paying attention to what’s happening inside of you, and just acknowledging that anxiety, had a way of helping me to return to the conversation without speaking or acting out of that anxiety.
I think a lot of Christians like to pray really quickly in those situations, rather than let the other person really grieve or talk about their painful emotions. The prayer can actually come out of anxiety, and that’s how I used to treat those situations. But once I learned how to notice my anxiety, I learned to be able to go back and continue to give them space to speak. So just that paying attention to what is happening inside of you makes us into better listeners, I believe.
CS: As a fellow anxiety surviver, I found that to be particularly helpful, so I’m glad that you talked about that just now. I think that will really help a lot of people.
AM: I think anxiety is actually the number one killer of good listening.
CS: Let’s talk a little bit about God. What would you say to someone seeking to be more open to listening to God?
AM: Yeah, that’s the longest chapter in the book, is listening to God, after I first outlined that God listens to us. I think that is actually a really strong foundation for learning how to listen to God, to realize that we’re always heard before we hear, when it comes to our relationship with the Lord. That God not only is a King who proclaims and commands and orders and directs, but actually we find throughout the Scriptures this very profound reality that God is a listener that wants to hear what we have to say, what we think, and is interested in hearing, and that’s a pretty remarkable thing. I don’t know of too many other gods like that. And so listening to God at that point really becomes foundational to our lives as believers.
Sometimes Christians can be a very talkative bunch, especially in more evangelical circles, we’re a fairly wordy group of people, in some cases, and so that’s why I’d like to see us really develop into a listening community and into people who listen in their individual lives as well. I think it’s very central to being a disciple, I think it’s very central to being a worshipper, I think it’s very central to being a servant, if you think about what servanthood is, and how important that was for Jesus. I think a servant is really an obedient listener, someone that can hear and obey, and those two words are very intricately aligned. Listening is not just then this little side benefit for us, or something that’s going to boost our relationships a little bit. It becomes very foundational to what it means to relate to God and to be a disciple, I believe.
CS: I definitely agree with everything that you’ve said, big picture. What I’m hoping for and I think the place where a lot of people get stuck is that the idea of being a listening community and being even an individual who listens to God is very attractive, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out, especially with so much experience in churches where listening is not practiced or necessarily highly valued, how to even start. How would you recommend that someone, even today, could make a movement in the direction of listening?
AM: As far as thinking about communities, I really think that if we want to have listening communities, we have to have leaders who listen. I think about all the classes that I took in seminary, there were lots of classes on preaching, but there wasn’t a class on listening, and if that’s a value that we have, and I hope that it is, and will become more of a value, of listening in communities, it really has to start with our leaders.
As far as individuals go, I think culturally speaking, we’re just not a good listening culture. I think we’re very distracted by a number of different things, by our constant multi-tasking, by the speed at which we live, by the screens that we put up in front of us that might keep us from seeing and hearing the people that are right in front of us. So I think part of it, after acknowledging that listening is important, that listening is something that I value, we have to start taking small steps in order to start becoming listeners, and I do think a lot of that is about learning how to slowly eliminate distractions and hurry in our lives, which can be very challenging in this culture. It’s hard to listen to God if we can’t even pay attention to anything for more than a couple of minutes. That’s something that we need to recognize and, I believe, start with.
As far as learning how to listen to God, a lot of people find it a little bit strange or a little bit scary. You know, I think a lot of people are afraid that God won’t actually speak to them if they really try to listen. And that chapter, the point isn’t necessarily that I’m going to hear all numbers of things if I really stop and listen to God, but that if I can cultivate a posture of listening, and that becomes a more important element of my spiritual life, then I might start noticing and becoming open to the graces and the miracles and the everyday kind of invisible realities that are taking place around me.
The whole book is sort of about listening to God. It’s about listening to God in scripture in one chapter, it’s about listening to God in creation in another chapter, and it’s about listening to other people, and I think actually that we we may very well hear from God if we’re really focused on listening to other people as well.
One of the most important disciplines for me was just learning how to sit for 5-10 minutes in silence, every single morning, and I still practice that. Just learning how to let all of the thoughts race out of your head, not to force them out, but to just kind of let them fade away and just sit, have a little, what’s often called a handle, which for me is the Samuel prayer, ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening’ and just being able to sit and do that discipline and sit in silence. I don’t usually hear anything from God in those situations, sometimes, but it’s just more I think that opens me up to being attentive to how God is speaking throughout the course of my life, in general.
CS: Thank you, Adam, that’s really helpful. I think that will be encouraging to people.