“Listening means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.”
After coming out of a meeting a few weeks ago, a colleague of mine shared a mantra from her many years in parish life. “The thing is not the thing,” she offered, referring to the issue that was presumably on the table. In her experience, when a volunteer or parishioner or fellow staff member was angry or frustrated, often the issue went much deeper or had its roots in something other than what was being shared in the moment.
While it wasn’t a brand-new realization, something about the simplicity of her statement stuck with me. I became curiously attentive to what THE thing might be in the conversations and meetings I’ve had since. I tend to be on the direct side, so at first I found it perplexing and a little frustrating. What a waste of time, I thought. Just say it!
Soon after, I found myself the frustrated party in one of a million Zoom meetings. I knew I was frustrated. I knew others could tell I was frustrated. But I couldn’t tell you why. Was it that I thought the meeting host was unprepared? Was it because I was still frustrated from the meeting I had earlier in the day? Was it because I didn’t sleep the night before or I was dreading getting on a plane the next day? A colleague who knows me followed up after the meeting. When I confessed that I didn’t really know what was going on, my friend very gently asked me a few questions, not trying to solve my problem, but rather just trying to understand it, which consequently helped me to understand myself.
Feeling clearer thanks to my colleague, and admittedly a little embarrassed about my behavior, I wondered how often I help others the way my friend helped me. We might be able to easily diagnosis that “the thing is not the thing,” but what’s our next step? Do we write off the person for not being as direct as we’d like them to be? Do we jump to trying to solve what we think the issue is? Or, like our Lord, are we patient enough to sit in someone’s confusion with them and listen? Are we willing to ask questions that serve their clarity, their fulfillment, their peace, even if it doesn’t meet our meeting outcomes?
I was reminded that sometimes the best gift a leader can give someone is a little space and a little grace to help them find their own way. As we begin this new week, let’s give some of our time and patience to help someone else discover where God is leading them.