Hearing the “Music behind the Words”


“To listen a soul into disclosure and discovery is the

greatest service one human can do for another.”

                                                      Quaker saying


Have you ever had a conversation wherein you shared something that was very personal, perhaps deep joy or great pain? You may have received a desired promotion at work and instead of the anticipated excitement, you quickly found yourself wondering, “Is this all there is?”  Maybe your youngest child recently left for college and the house now seems empty and lifeless. Or perhaps the marriage you thought would last forever has ended in divorce and you feel confusion, hurt, guilt and anger.  You may have given birth to a child and feel yourself awash with the joy and wonder of this new life. You take the risk of becoming vulnerable and tell a friend or family member what you’re experiencing. And deep-down you wonder: will this person really hear my story…will they enter into it with me in a way that honors the depth of my feeling and gives me a chance to make meaning of my experience?


We live in a culture that frequently misses the sacredness of the human experience and the importance of holy listening…listening for what self-psychologist Heinz Kohut terms “the music behind the words”.   When we share a personal experience it is with the hope that the listener can catch a glimpse of what we are experiencing and that they will listen with “the ears of the heart”.  This is what our souls cry out for…to be heard and received in a way that values the experiences inherent in our unique journey.


So why is it that we seldom receive the gift our soul’s so deeply desire?  What happens in a typical conversation that leaves the soul thirsting for something more?  Take just a moment to reflect on conversations during which you shared an important experience or feeling.  Did the other person react in any of the following ways?


·        Me-too-isms: “I know just what you’re going through; when I was sick…”

·        Moralizing, preaching, being judgmental: “I told you drinking would lead to


·        Giving advice: “If I were you, I would…”

·        Cheap consolation: “It will all turn out okay…”   “Time heals all wounds…”

·        Arguing with the speaker: “You really shouldn’t feel that way…”

·        Religious cliches: “All you need is faith.”   Don’t worry, God loves you.”  “God

must have some purpose for doing this.”   “S/he was so good, God wanted

him/her with God.” 

·        Other cliches:  “Cheer up!”   “Try not to worry.”

·        Letting their own fears and needs dominate:  “You don’t really want to talk

about dying…”


What did their reaction evoke in you?  Did you feel free to explore your experience and look for ways to work with it; perhaps find personal meaning in the midst of your joys and sorrows? Or did you feel as though the other person’s response left you more alone than before you exposed your vulnerable self? 


Now, change the image and reflect on yourself as the listener.  What do you discover?  Do you, like most of us, use me-to-isms, moralizing, giving advice, etc.?  It’s the most common way that we communicate…it is what we’ve experienced…it is what we’ve learned. And so our souls, and the souls of others, get buried deep inside.  We loose the gift of sharing our true selves with one another.  We forego the valuable lessons and profound meanings offered when we are fully present to the experiences and feelings discovered in our lives.  We miss what is most holy and sacred about being human.


How do we become holy listeners?  How do we “hear the music behind the words”?  How do we listen another human into “Being”?  It is a difficult task that requires at least four important components.  First, it takes self-sacrifice…a willingness to set aside our personal reactions so that we may encourage the other to explore their experience.  Second, it takes effort…hearing “the music behind the words” means listening, not just for the facts, but to the deep meaning that the person is trying to communicate.  This often requires an active attempt by the listener to seek clarification of what the speaker means.  Perhaps one could say, “Tell me more about what you’re feeling” or “That sounds like it was exciting, confusing, frustrating, painful, etc.”  Each of these are ways in which we encourage the other to go more deeply into their experience.  Third, it takes compassion and genuine interest in the other person…a desire to know them and what has meaning and importance for their lives.  Fourth, it takes respect…the belief that this person has the answers within themselves and that they can find those answers if we provide a listening ear and emotional support to aid them on their journey.


Christ is our model.  He heard into the depths of each person’s experience…he heard the “music behind the words”.  It occurs to me that the simple (or not so simple) act of holy listening was an important part of what drew people to Jesus and what brought healing into their lives.  Let us follow Christ as we seek to be open to ourselves, to God, to creation and to one another through holy listening.


Listen…Listen…do you hear the music?  If you do, you’re help giving birth to someone’s soul.

Debbie Kohler