Listening with Compassion

The Importance of Genuine Conversation in the Midst of Disagreement

by Mary Milad

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As my sophomore year of college concluded, I left Boston to spend my summer at home in Chicago. The first Sunday back, my father asked me to accompany him to church. Although a weekly tradition growing up, I hadn’t attended a service in a while.  Sitting in wooden pews, I watched a man take the podium that I didn’t recognize. He was a visiting pastor from an inner-city church offering a guest sermon titled “How to be a Good Man.”

The pastor began by explaining that following a difficult divorce, he began to reexamine his life in an attempt to understand where his marriage fell apart. After years of reading, research and reflection, the pastor had felt he learned what it meant to be a “good man.”

Immediately, I felt nervous that his approaching a topic by addressing only 50 percent of the congregation would veer toward sexism. I had faith, however, that my small, liberal church wouldn’t promote a sermon, or a pastor, so obviously sexist.

The pastor challenged the men in the congregation to ask themselves, “What am I doing to be a good and wholesome man that provides stability and strength for their family?” while calling each woman in the congregation to ask themselves, “Do I provide a warm home environment?” The sermon progressed in a way that, I’m sure you can imagine, was problematic.

At 11:30 sharp the sermon concluded, and I marched up to the pastor, fuming, running lines in my head of what I was going to say to him. I questioned him about the takeaway of his lesson and admitted that I found it to sound sexist. I emphasized that I’m sure this wasn’t his intent. He tried to explain that he thought men need to do a better job of being dependable figures in their family’s lives, and I argued that any conversation where you address a man and a woman with separate ability is inherently discriminatory. After all, separate but equal is never truly equal.

After about 35 minutes back and forth, we ultimately ended in a place where we agreed to disagree.

The walk home was tense. I was still upset that my small, liberal church didn’t seem so upset about the message that morning. I felt, as many people do following an argument, that I was right and he was wrong.

It wasn’t until my father said something that I realized I had approached the situation with hostility.

My father pushed me to look at where this man came from, literally. He is a visiting pastor from a church in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago –a neighborhood where most of the families face issues that we almost never see in the low-crime rate, high GDP suburbs. Most Sundays, he is preaching to a community where a large portion of the families are headed by single mothers. To understand his sermon meant to understand that he spends 51 weeks of the year preaching to a town where over 75 percent of the reported crimes are committed by men. He preaches to young men who do need to hear about the importance of dependability and accountability as a father, brother, and son. It did not come from a place of misogyny nor hatred; it came from a place of support and hope for a community which he had known.

That day, I learned what it means to enter a conversation with compassion given disagreement. When I talked with this pastor I didn’t consider the difference in perspective given where and how we each grew up. I didn’t realize that we couldn’t compare mindsets because we were approaching the topic with radically different headspace. I don’t think this is an uncommon interaction. Our world allows for a spectrum of people with an array of opinions; thus, hostile conversations are not rare.

So, what does it mean to listen with compassion? It means to enter a conversation with the intent to hear the other person’s point of view, rather than to argue. It means to listen before you speak. It means to throw away the identity of right and wrong.  Most of all, it means to not just try to understand what your counterpart thinks, but also why they believe it. Listening with compassion, in both harmony and conflict, is to prioritize kindness, love, and community in every interaction.

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