It Pays to Listen


It really pays to listen. Here’s a true story:

One day I met a man who had 25 years of experience in largescale “career transitions”. That’s the nice way to say laying-off or firing many employees at once. Typically he would be in a closed room at the company location, where he spent fifteen minutes with each unfortunate individual to provide a combination of psychological and practical assistance – making sure the person was able to cope, not fall to pieces, and explaining the practical help that the former employer was offering to “transition” to a new job.

I asked him about his most unusual experience.

One day, he said, a woman came into his office laughing. Bad sign. And she laughed more and more. Really bad sign!

Finally, she stopped and explained, saying something like this: “I worked here for a really terrible boss. He would never listen to anything. I was so fed up that this morning I arrived with my letter of resignation in my handbag. I walked up to him – but he wouldn’t listen, he ordered me to go to the dining hall. So I went there. To my surprise, I learned that I’ve been laid off with a financial settlement of a full year’s salary. If he had listened to me, I’d have resigned first, and then I would have received nothing whatsoever!” No wonder she was laughing.

Since hearing this story, I’ve had a policy about listening. If I want to speak but you also want to speak, I’ll let you go first. It can’t hurt, and I might gain something from listening before speaking.

I’m struck by the emphasis on listening in Jesus’s growing up. When Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem after leaving the Passover festivities without him, “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:41-52) Yes, giving answers too, that displayed great understanding, but listening first.

Pope Francis makes a huge point about listening.[1] For instance, speaking of synods, he envisions “a Church which listens, which realizes that listening is more than simply hearing. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit…” [2] Listening is required for authenticity and growth, for the Church as well as for individuals.

And what about not listening? The Pope has berated the clergy for ‘lording it over’ their flocks, demanding obedience to their judgmental, legalistic pronouncements. They should immerse themselves in the daily realities of people’s lives before speaking. Reflecting his thinking, a 2016 document that updates the formation of priests says that real listening “frees the pastor from the temptation to abstraction, to self-promotion, to excessive self-assurance, and to that aloofness that would make him a ‘spiritual accountant’ rather than a ‘good Samaritan’”[3].

For this Pope, God is present in His people. God’s presence is not something that filters down a chain of command, as in an image I was taught: a human chain of priests-bishops-cardinals-pope who get messages on the special telephone from God and convey them, suitably simplified, to us primitives. Pope Francis discovers God in the daily lives of the faithful. Therefore, he says, we must listen, discern and dialogue together: the Church is all of us.


[1] I am grateful for suggestions from the Catholic author and commentator Austen Ivereigh in the remainder of this piece.



Robert Czerny lives in Ottawa and southwest Nova Scotia. Two main interests are ethics in Canada and Catholic social teaching and action.

  • Rosie
    Posted at 08:45h, 29 March Reply

    Thank you Robert for reminding us
    the value of listening first.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 18:42h, 30 March Reply

    Thank you Robert!

  • Daryold Winkler
    Posted at 07:39h, 04 April Reply

    Thanks, Bob!

  • Karen Arthurs
    Posted at 09:51h, 23 April Reply

    Thanks for sharing a good teaching story.

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