One of the first things that struck me as a new immigrant to the US was the convincing emphasis on speaking up. Hearing phrases like “speak up,” “make your voice heard,” or “speak your mind” really made an impression on me. One of the new idioms that I remember being told to me often as a reminder to voice out my opinion was “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

But amid all these reminders of our right to speak, we must not forget the value of listening and that not everyone can be on the talking side all at once. Everyone has a right to speak but everyone also has the right to be heard.

Listening in Short Supply

Listening, however, seems to be in short supply these days. How many of us can find the time to just sit down and listen to our neighbors, our peers, the people we run into in the streets, or even our loved ones? Our calendars are full and when someone wants to hang out and talk, it often must be scheduled—there goes the simple charm of a serendipitous connection. In the subway, in the gym, and even in the workplace surrounded by other humans, we choose to put on our headphones and listen to digital soundtracks rather than live voices. It really feels as if no one has the time, or the energy, or the patience to listen anymore that we turn to social media hoping to be heard.

Additionally, we are too preoccupied hanging out on the opposite end of listening—waiting to tell our own stories and waiting for someone to listen to us. In a world described by author Susan Cain as a world that “cannot stop talking,” there are so many people talking trying to get their voices heard and very few people listening. In the listening-talking equation, the talking side far outweighs listening.

Listening is a priceless gift that goes a long way. It is an act of 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 thing that we need to bridge the divide, to rebalance the dialogue equilibrium, and to remind us of our connectedness.

The invitation to contribute to the conversation does not always mean talking. And even when it is necessary for us to talk, listening is the more important part of our conversations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, once said that “people forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”

Making the World Better Through Listening

If we really want to solve problems in our world, in our families, and in our personal lives, we really must start with listening. Pope Francis, in a message to an audience in March 2018, said that listening can make the world a better place but sadly there’s a lack of people who know how to listen. True dialogue starts with listening. And it’s not just the physical act of listening but it’s genuinely mindful and attentive listening.

Stephen Covey, author of one of the most influential books of our modern times, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said that we must be able to listen with the intent to understand. We should learn how to listen to others and listen with the intent to sincerely hear the other’s points of view. We need to learn how to quiet our own thoughts, open our minds, absorb the situation, and seek to understand. This was what Saint Francis of Assisi prayed back in the 13th century—“Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”

Loving Our Neighbor Through Listening

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 society’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.”

How do we love God and our neighbor? One good starting point is to simply listen. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, said that: “The first duty of love is to listen.” We need to learn to be fully present and listen to the voice of God speaking to our hearts, for, according to Saint John of the Cross, “the language He best hears is the silent love.”

Loving our neighbors entails the same kind of listening, to become fully present, to empty our thoughts, and to be free of judgement. When we truly listen, we open not only the pathways to our hearing but also our hearts and our minds. We slip into their shoes as they invite us to journey with them, to feel their struggles, and to rejoice with them in their triumph.

When we try to think of gifts to buy our loved ones, don’t forget that the simple act of listening is a priceless gift and might just be the one present that the other person really needs. Before opening our own presents, let us consider being truly present to our loved ones and to our neighbors and open our ears, hearts, and minds and give the gift of listening.