Thought for the Week: How well do we listen?

Jill Allum asks 'How well do we listen?' in the 'Thought for the Week'

I was seven in 1957. Once a month, after our evening service at Hutton and Shenfield Union Church, about twenty young people ran down the road and poured into the front room of a church member. We gathered at the feet of Denis Martin, who was a doctor at Claybury Mental Hospital, London.

He was a renowned psychiatrist and wrote the booklet Anxiety – the challenge to the church – number seven of a series of spiritual healing booklets. I still have my copy, signed by him, which shows how much I have valued his methods for over sixty years.

What was unique about Denis Martin? The answer was simple. He listened.

We sit round him quietly. He looks up. ‘Who has a problem for today?’ Someone begins. Whatever is said, he accepts it. He listens. And so we go on. We leave full of more questions and so stimulated. I have never known that experience again in my life. He could have talked so much, but in just listening to us he gave us the best gift he could: the gift of being listened to.

The church provided this listening space for me. I would love to pass it on in my Quaker circles. I am reading his booklet again and it is resonating. Denis Martin worked with people who had mental illness but found a need and a way of meeting that need for my church youth. Could Quakers find something like this for our Young Adult Friends?

Denis Martin wrote: ‘Is there fear and tension in personal relationships within the church? None of us can, with confidence, answer this as we would wish.’

I change ‘church’ to ‘Quakers’. Denis says that tensions and internal problems must be acknowledged. He adapts his group therapy so that it will work for any small group. First, they must make their group a real fellowship of love. They must go through a healing experience themselves, facing any tension. They must become a unity so that the healing power of love is released within it. An important group to foster, in his view, is one amongst young people. Back to our Young Adult Friends.

Returning to the twenty-first century, when the Kindlers came to our Meeting we had a training day and one facilitator said: ‘Quakers stay out of the groups – they talk too much!’ What a condemnation! Is it true? I think it is.

How, then, can we learn to listen better? We all have a need to share our problems. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved,’ my granny said. Suppose we try to hold back and open ourselves to the other. Listen to their pain, resentment and bewilderment – without being ready to give a glib answer – and perhaps offer a gentle question to encourage them to delve deeper. Give it a go!

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