Really Listening – Emma Lai

Being with the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry this semester has been informative and enlightening, not only in my understanding of different faith and non-faith traditions, but also in listening. Talking about such a socially sensitive like religion can be difficult, but listening—really listening—can be even more of a challenge. What does it mean to actively listen? For me, talking about my faith, once prompted, is relatively easy. I like talking about what I believe and I like to defend it. But because I enjoy talking so much, I often struggle to fully listen to the other side. Sure, I can hear what someone is saying, but can I truly understand where they are coming from?

When someone says something I relate to, I want to show that person I understand where they are coming from by sharing my similar experience. The problem with this method is its potential for miscommunication. For every story someone else offers, I often feel that I am somehow twisting their story to center around me; I am not valuing their words but am instead distorting it to make it my own. Sometimes, staying silent is the most effective form of listening because it allows me to internally digest someone else’s statement. Reflecting on the past semester, this kind of listening has been a struggle for me. I get so excited to talk about faith traditions that I forget to listen to other people.

This semester has been a time of intense philosophical and theological conversations both inside and outside the CRGC, challenging me to listen in a new way. The conversations force me to think before I speak, to delve deeper into my beliefs, and question the sources of my assumptions.

Of these conversations, those with people from exclusivist faith traditions proved to be the most difficult. I am thankful that the Fellows and I are excited to listen and learn about other traditions, even if we may struggle in it, but I know this is not true for everyone. It is easy for us with our pluralistic assumptions to scoff at people who exalt their own faith tradition and condemn outsiders. It is easy for us to reject these people because they are exclusivist and therefore do not belong in interfaith dialogue. But I believe that what is easy is not always what is right.

We as Interfaith Fellows need to include the exclusivists. We need to hear their beliefs just like everyone else’s. Because if we can listen—truly listen—to what all people have to say, then maybe we can show by example that inclusivism is not only for inclusive people.

As we prepare for our first outreach event of the year, I have to wonder: How can I listen better, and how can I help other people listen better, too?

– Emma Lai