In indigenous Filipino psychology, there is a methodology that involves the concept and practice of “kuwentuhan.” It can be translated as sharing of stories and/or storytelling. But that literal translation doesn’t capture what it means to the Filipino people. In a culture where oral tradition is a crucial means of passing down wisdom, heritage, practices, and stories, kuwentuhan is a concept and practice that is deeply embedded in the lives and the everyday ethos of the Filipinos. Although it is a highly valued everyday practice among Filipinos, it is a common human value. For those in the helping profession, particularly mental health, kuwentuhan, or sharing stories, is an integral and natural starting point in the holistic healing of the person, for it is the foundation for trust, empathy, and compassion.

Kuwentuhan involves taking the time to listen to the person’s narratives and getting to know his or her history. Some of the best medical doctors I have dealt with always started the sessions by trying to know my story and history as a patient. They try to get to know not only my history but the history of my parents and grandparents. They try to get to know the whole me—my family, my social relationships, my habits and hobbies. They want to be able to treat not just the current symptoms but the cause so they take the time to dive deep and listen to my narratives.

Listening Can Make the World A Better Place

With the societal issues we are dealing with today, fixing the symptoms is not enough. We have to trace down the story and history and treat the root causes. In our social relations, in our families, and in our personal lives, our brokenness can be repaired by listening to one another’s narratives. Pope Francis, in a message to an audience in March 2018, said that listening can make the world a better place. Sadly, there seems to be a shortage in the willingness and the time to listen. True dialogue cannot start unless it starts with the act of listening. And it’s not just the physical act of words passing through the ear canals but it’s authentic, mindful, attentive, and empathetic listening where the words make it all the way through the mind and landing in the heart.

Seek First to Understand

“A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2)

Stephen Covey, the author of some of the most influential books of our time including Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said that we must be able to listen with the intent to understand. It takes effort to listen to another with the intent to sincerely hear the other’s points of view and know where they’re coming from. It requires a quieting of our own thoughts, opening up our minds, absorbing the situation, and seeking to understand. Saint Francis of Assisi prayed something back in the 13th century which rings true once again today. May we pray with him as we ask God to grant us the grace and humility to listen—“Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”

It takes openness and humility to truly listen to others. As Saint Paul said: “In humility value others above yourself. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). With today’s trending emphasis on the self, on individualism and individualistic values, it is easy for us to forget the greatest commandments that Christ told us (in Mark 12:30): “Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

Loving God and Our Neighbor

Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, said that the first duty of love is to listen. With the first commandment of loving God, we can simply take that first step of putting ourselves in a state where we can be fully present and listen to the voice of God speaking to our hearts. The second commandment of loving thy neighbor also entails the similar step of first becoming fully present, to emptying our thoughts, and freeing our minds of the clutter of judgement and bias, and listening. Empty ourselves of bias and prejudice by listening to the other’s story first because biases are really the stories that we make up about the other. 

When we truly listen, we slip into their shoes as we journey with them, to feel their struggles, and to rejoice with them in their triumph. We may not always see eye to eye but at least we are having a respectful conversation where our voices matter. Listening seems like a simple and easy process but it takes work, a great deal of humility and strength. It takes practice and exercise. The latest research in neuroscience suggests that when we share stories, we are shaping the brain and increasing neurochemicals responsible for empathy, compassion, trust, and generosity. 

Drowning in Noise

How many of us plug our ears with earbuds to listen to digital soundtracks rather than live voices? How many of us can find the time to just sit down and listen to our neighbors, our peers, or even our loved ones? Our calendars are full and when someone wants to hang out and talk, it often must be scheduled, foiling the charm and authenticity of  serendipitous conversations. In our desperate search for someone to hear our stories, we have turned to social media.

We’re drowning in noise that includes a cacophony of voices all trying to say something. In a world described by author Susan Cain in her book Quiet as a world that “cannot stop talking,” there are so many voices trying to be heard but very few people listening. There is an increasing imbalance in the listening-talking equation where the talking side far outweighs the listening side. 

Listening is the half of the conversation that requires more effort and more humility. Theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said that “people forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”

Sharing One Epic Story of Humankind

Listening is an act of faith and generosity. Listeners generously share their time, their presence, and their openness of mind and heart. In a time of divisiveness and discord, listening might just be the tool that we need to bridge the divide, to rebalance the dialogue equilibrium, and to remind us of our connectedness and our humanity. What we have been facing as a society in recent years is not just a crisis of social justice but of spirituality. Listening may just lead us to rediscover that our individual stories, though many and diverse, are just part of one large epic story, of one body and one spirit. 

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).