Lucy recently learned to wave. One day while she was sitting in her highchair eating lunch, she waved at me. When I waved back, Lucy’s eyes widened, a huge grin spilling across her face. Then she waved again, and I waved back. This time she excitedly screamed out. Again and again she waved, excited to see me wave back each time.
Can you imagine realizing for the first time that you can communicate with others? That by gesturing, you can get another person to gesture back?
In this seemingly simple moment, Lucy was experiencing something quite profound—I can communicate and be understood. And boy was she happy about it. Now when we take walks, she waves at just about everything: people walking past, kids at the park, dogs on their leashes, and even the houses.
It reminds me of that moment when you share a struggle you’ve been facing and you hear those deeply encouraging words: me too. It’s the feeling of being seen, known, and understood. It moves us from feeling somewhat invisible to feeling part of community, part of the human race.
On the other hand, when we feel we haven’t been heard or understood, the disappointment is enormous. At the least we feel “different.” At the extreme we wonder if we have any value at all.
Communication, specifically feeling that we’ve been heard, is crucial. Even Lucy at 11 months is figuring that out.
In my mind, small groups are the perfect place to be seen, known, and understood. But that’s not always our experience, is it? It seems that a big part of the problem is that we don’t know how to listen to others. We want desperately to be heard, but we never work on hearing others. But if no one is good at listening, none of us will ever feel heard.
It’s far too common for people in a small group to talk at each other rather than witheach other. Perhaps we should focus time and energy on the work of truly listening. It would help us grow closer to one another and it could carry over into our conversations with those who are different from us in some way—people from different faiths, people with different lifestyles, people from different backgrounds. We could learn how to have real conversations where we consider other perspectives and learn from others’ experiences—rather than simply spouting off our positions and differences.
I recently read a book by Ruth Haley Barton that talks about how to live life in community, and she touches on how to truly listen to others. You can read the excerpthere. It’s hard work to listen well. It takes settling our own inner thoughts so we can tune in to what’s being said. But when we do this hard work, we give others the gift of being heard, known, and understood. That’s a gift anyone would appreciate.