Adam S. McHugh, an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director whose Introverts in the Church (IVP Books, 2009) encouraged introverts to participate fully in the extroverted culture of evangelical communities, is now turning his attention to the neglected act of listening—to God, to Scripture, to creation, and to other people—in The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction (IVP Books, Dec.).
Why did you decide to write about listening?
Listening became really important to me when I became a hospice chaplain a few years ago. I always considered my role as a minister to be bringing insight and imparting wisdom into situations. I learned very quickly that my words very much fell flat, and that there are situations of grief and pain and death and bereavement in which words really don’t have much of an impact. In fact, the more that you speak, the more you try to share your insight, you often make things worse, and you make people even feel more alone. That was when I learned to become a listener. That changed me personally, that changed my ministry, and that ultimately is what led to the book.
How does today’s culture make listening more difficult than it has been for previous generations?
I do think we live in a fairly distracted world. There’s quite a bit of evidence from a neurological point of view that all of this technology is actually rewiring our brains. Listening is all about the practice of focused attention on another person, on God as well, and it’s very difficult for us to be able to focus our attention on someone else, [or] something else.
In what ways does learning how to listen change us?
In so many ways. I think it helps us to be less self-absorbed, to be people who don’t think that our role is to speak, to preach, to teach [but instead] to learn, to give attention. It also helps us grow in humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers. It helps grow us in our sense of curiosity, and helps wake us up to all of the different aspects of reality that may be coming at us. It helps us wake up to the idea that maybe there are spiritual realities and spiritual dimensions that are happening in our everyday mundane lives.
You give tips on how to save the holiday dinner from disaster when the conversation turns to religion and politics. Have you ever rescued a holiday dinner?
I think rescued may be a little dramatic, but listening is particularly challenging when we’re dealing with topics of utmost importance, whether that’s religion, whether that’s politics. There’s very little listening that happens in those situations. If you’re around the Thanksgiving dinner table and somehow a political conversation happens, if there’s a way to kind of re-route that, and to approach it as a listener and then to say, "Why do you hold that view? Why is that important to you?" It very much changes the nature of the conversation. It also leads to a greater sense of intimacy, whereas debate tends to pull people apart.