Listening is not as easy as you think. It requires more of you than you might realize. Consider those times in class, at work, or evenings with your family when you are told a story. Do you daze off, thinking about what you want for dinner? Do you focus less on the content of the conversation and more on the mole on his cheek? Do you act like a Bobble-head figurine, nodding without hearing the words of your friend? Even I, a self-proclaimed “good listener,” have the tendency to do such things. So when Dr. Bounds mentioned we would be learning how to listen in class, I knew it meant a change of character.

Grouped together according to our site placements, Tuesday afternoon’s Church and Community Ministries course was in desperate need of a change of character. I say this not as an affront against the class; rather, I say this knowing that our course, our site placements, and our Contextual Education experiences demand it.

Located at the Gateway Center for the homeless and Metro State Prison for Women, twenty-two of us moonlight as chaplain interns every week. Entering spaces charged with stories of poverty, violence, and social exclusion, we are asked to put our lives on hold and listen to our fellow brothers and sisters. Listening in this environment requires us to be authentic, acknowledging our biases, trigger points, and the social power we wield as educated seminarians. If we don’t do this – if we place authenticity on the backburner – we risk failing to establish genuine relationships, the sort that have the potential for actual transformation.

For this reason, along with many others, Dr. Bounds knew that lessons on listening would change our approach to Contextual Education. And, I might argue, our entire approach to seminary. Her emphasis to become engaged listeners was much more than just a practice in mental cognition. It was a call to empathetically enter into someone else’s life. This meant actively listening to a female inmate or client who had recently lost a loved one, been victimized by another, or just needed an open ear. It meant holding back our comments, opinions, and advice until a relationship had been established. And it meant recognizing that our role was to befriend and serve, not control.

When class ended, I remember feeling stronger. I recall thinking how important it is to be present in all of my relationships, to interact with intention, and to give each individual the empathetic ear they deserve.

Whether we are at Metro, at Gateway, or in the middle of Old Testament, our relationships can be transformed by the way we listen. By evaluating our intentions and tendencies we are less likely to monopolize conversations, forget important details, or give disingenuous advice. We also free the individual to explore her heart in a non-restrictive way, which may then lead her to open up and let someone in. This letting in not only transforms the individual but leads to the deeply authentic and rich relationships our world needs today.

So take the time to listen. Evaluate your tendencies. Be engaged. And empathetically enter into the life of another with heartfelt compassion.