It’s been harder to sustain connection this year than ever before in our lives. As somebody who lives with anxiety and depression, maintaining social connection is absolutely critical to living well. At the beginning of the pandemic, I remember thinking about all of the people I wished I could hug, how badly I wanted to meet friends at a bar and act like life was normal, and how much I wanted to fly home so my parents could take care of me.
But these weren’t options for me — or for anyone. I realized early on that I needed to prioritize human connection and conversations of depth in order to care for my mental and spiritual health during such a challenging time. With some effort, I’ve been able to maintain and even (safely) form new relationships. Mostly, I’ve done this by simply attending to some fundamental listening skills.
As a graduate of a Benedictine college, I have a reverence for the Rule of Saint Benedict. These are guidelines St. Benedict drew up for monks in the community he was forming way back in 561, but they’ve been so foundational that they are still in use today.
The Rule is filled with wisdom, but the first line always stuck out to me more than anything else: Listen with the ear of your heart. My Benedictine education taught me the value of listening with the ear of my heart — that it is both a gift and an invitation to do so. But how do we really listen in a way that can foster connection strong enough to sustain and fulfill us in the midst of a global pandemic?
I’ve listened to people in a variety of settings — from sexual assault survivors to people living in marginalized neighborhoods — but the good news is that no one needs to be a crisis advocate, a dialogue facilitator, or a community organizer to listen well and have conversations of depth, even during a pandemic. All we need to listen well is the ear of our heart. Here are some ways to open it up.
1. Schedule time
So often conversations happen on the fly — you respond to an old friend’s Instagram story or shoot someone a quick text when you think of them. But intentionally seeking time to spend with someone (even virtually or over the phone) automatically brings a level of care to the conversation.
Try saying “I’d love to catch up! Could we set up a Facetime date this week?” Scheduling a time and sticking to it shows that you care about this person and this conversation and that you respect their time.
2. Ask the right questions
I believe that having conversations of depth really comes down to asking the kinds of questions that prompt someone to share what’s on their heart. The right questions are open-ended, bold, and thoughtful — and they are offered in a way that communicates that it is safe to be vulnerable. The right questions tell someone that you are not afraid to receive difficult news — that you are willing to help them hold something that might be raw and complicated.
Here’s a few examples of open-ended questions that have led me to rich conversation:
- How have you been caring for your mental health lately?
- Where have you found God during this time?
- How have recent changes impacted you and the people you care about?
These are just three quick examples of questions that have the potential to open up deeper opportunities for connection and move beyond small talk. They strike to the heart of what is important to all of us: relationships (with ourselves, with God, with others we love).
3. Give your full attention
Whether it’s a Zoom room or a physical room, you can tell when you’re talking to someone who is not focused. It’s so tempting to send a quick text or email during a conversation, but multitasking splits our attention. Whether we notice it or not, the speaker will.
To listen with the ear of our heart and foster connection, we must give people our full attention and make them feel like they’re the only person in the room. You can signal this focus with thoughtful eye contact, nodding in understanding, and showing your compassion with your facial expressions. Body language has the power to wordlessly communicate that you are listening with the ear of your heart.
Now more than ever, we need to be able to truly encounter one another. We need conversations that are full of courage and love because that’s what keeps us going. Without those connections, we dry up — we’ve all felt that thirst in the past year. It’s a fundamental human need to know and be known with depth. Listening with the ear of our heart is the way we tap into those deep conversations.