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The key to avoiding distraction … from a 6th-century monk

St. Benedict
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Must-read advice for discussing contentious issues in person and on the web.

Do you ever feel like we’re all talking past each other? Even in friendly conversations I notice times when I’m simply waiting for a pause so I can interject a new topic of conversation and hold court about it. In other words, I’m not so willing to pay attention to what other people are saying so much as I want to talk at them. It gets worse when talking to strangers or debating a contentious topic. We talk at each other, not with each other, and are distracted by our own preconceived ideas. How can we be less distracted and more attentive, to take more of an interest in and be more open-minded about the opinions and concerns of others?

St. Benedict asked himself the same question. After all, he was trying to create a focused, peaceful, familial environment for a bunch of unruly monks who, even though they’d entered a monastery, had their own struggles with community life. In his “rule of life” for his men, he actually begins by addressing this topic.

Here is the very first word of the entire Benedictine Rule – Listen.

Benedict writes, “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.” In the beginning of any conversation or venture, before we act or speak, the best place to begin is to be quiet for a moment and listen. We might listen to other people, ask for advice, or hear hard words that we don’t like but are nevertheless important. Or we might listen to God, allow distractions to fall away, be sure we’ve considered all options, or take time to sleep on a big decision. Basically, listening is taking time to hear in a certain way, with an attitude of openness, and a commitment to devote your whole self to the process, as Benedict writes, by “inclining the ear of your heart.”

This is great advice because obstacles are all around, so we need to be intentional about overcoming them. In fact, as I’m typing this I’m listening to music on my computer, checking my phone for random texts, and switching tabs to check email (okay, I closed it all!). Even when talking to a friend, the temptation to slowly reach into your pocket, grab the phone, and take a quick look to see if any texts came through is almost irresistible. Distraction is available 24/7, and even when we cut through it, we might not like what we hear, like conflicting perspectives or that sinking feeling in your heart that you have to do the right thing even though it isn’t advantageous. This is why Benedict talks about listening with “obedience,” and in the context of the monks in the monastery he notes how important it is to listen to the “Father.” In other words, an important first step is to put the ego aside.

Putting the ego aside and attending to a person with the whole heart means the willingness to focus not only on those who have already earned our respect, but also to maintain a general attitude of openness. This is why, whenever anything of importance is to be decided, Benedict instructs his monks: “Let the Abbot assemble the whole community. … Moreover, we have said that all are to be called to counsel because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is better.” Don’t judge the source. Benedict even goes so far as to recommend listening to strangers when he says that if a visitor “points out anything reasonably and with humble charity… weigh the matter prudently.”

All of this is great advice for a guy like me who definitely needs to practice listening more attentively and cutting out distractions in my life to better use my whole heart to discern the next step forward. It’s also great advice for our wider society as we are increasingly engaging in public debate over contentious issues. Wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped talking past each other and really, truly listened? Who knows what minds be changed or consensus reached, but even if there are no immediate practical results there will always be the knowledge that we have truly heard each other, perhaps for the first time.

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