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Gracious Listening: Beyond the Edges of our Circle


“It is not our differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”
~  Margaret Wheately

How do we listen to others? It is critical in this time of increased polarization that we learn to connect and work across lines of difference, whether the ‘other’ be family, neighbor or fellow citizen. Listening is where we start.

During the month of May 2017, Healing Circles Langley hosted a series of evenings with Jeanne Strong to engage in reflective activities designed to crack open our appreciation of otherness.

Together we explored, through the writings of Henri Nouwen, Parker Palmer, Margaret Wheately, John O’Donohue, Rumi and others, how to move from self-protectiveness and fear to hospitality, so that our gracious listening can help heal what Desmond Tutu called our ‘radical brokenness’.

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends…

… Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.

~ Henri Nouwen (in Reaching Out)

So often we feel right – and righteous about our views – so much so that we may not extend to others the space and grace to be fully who they are, and increasingly tend to think the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  The good news, says Parker Palmer in Healing the Heart of Democracy

… is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences.

We practiced the art of asking honest and open questions, questions to which we could not possibly know the answer, questions that do not couch our own hidden assumptions, opinions or agenda. This life-long practice helps us take the time to understand another’s point of view – without judgment – especially if it is different from ours.

Gracious listening requires a hospitable heart, a compassionate presence, a willingness to hear another’s story, a commitment to not ‘fix’, a willingness to suspend judgment and turn to wonder, a willingness to hold each story in confidence.

What kind of a world could we create if we each practiced gracious listening?

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up — ever — trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

 ~ Terry Tempest Williams

Jeanne R. Strong, a life-long educator, has been a facilitator for the Center for Courage & Renewal for the past 15 years. As a Healing Circles Langley volunteer, she continues to make meaning in her life by supporting others in leading lives of integrity, change, passion and purpose.

Healing Circles: A poem

 by Judith Adams

This poem, Healing Circles, was first read at a benefit performance for Healing Circles Langley at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

Healing Circles

A day can vanish
from the brightest beauty;
Shredded by a Physician’s report
a putrid march through the one who spins on a dark dime and
somersaults to where angels
tear apart in unsparing lyrics
and lamentation your lifestyle.
Isolation is not possible,
it never was true anyway.
So we band together
we mind the light,
we form a circle around
the one being hauled away,
rehearsing in our own minds
what will also be ours,
the direction the same.
And there our knowledge ends.
We have theories, even small intimations. We don’t attempt to throw a life line,
but together construct a raft.
We climb in for the
ups and downs of the odyssey.
With aching, imperfect and
shattered hearts,
we close in on the mystery.

Chosen for the 2017 Washington State Speaker Bureau, poet Judith Adams also gives her heart to Healing Circles Langley as host of the weekly Writing through Grief and Sadness poetry circle. She is the author of many books of poetry, including Love Letters Only.

The Circle is Big Enough

 by Diana Lindsay

A circle of wicker chairs in a beam of late-afternoon sunlight. A circle of cancer survivors share what is most on their heart in this moment.

She is the first to reach for the talking stone to share. After completing chemotherapy, a treatment she deeply feared because her father had died from it, her first follow-up results are good. She is ecstatic, ready to celebrate, on the eve of heading off for a trip she has always longed to take. She doesn’t believe she can delay her celebration; her doctors tell her the chance of her cancer returning is 90%.

Another member, nearly a year out from a series of surgeries caused by a surgical error, found deep spiritual peace this morning in our local Earth Sanctuary nature preserve.

A third member who has lived with cancer in his body for 40 years, has felt a level of pain this week that signals him that he has entered a new phase.

Across the circle, is a long-term circle member who has just entered hospice.

Do the members who are experiencing great joy mute their emotions because of the pain elsewhere in the circle? Do those in pain hold back to avoid “bringing others down”?

No. The Circle is big enough for it all. For all of us. For all parts of us. For all stages of our life journeys. The work of the circle is to learn how to be truly authentic, to deepen our capacity to give full voice to who are in this moment. In a safe circle, we learn to trust both ourselves in the telling and others in the listening.

In circle, we can honor the step forward and the three steps back. Honor the steps that wander, circle back, whose directions are not yet clear. Honor those at beginnings and those at ends.

We don’t have to wait for a time when the circle is in synchrony. We support our unique paths to healing the heart and our dissenting opinions on what orients the mind.

Yet this is not how we have been trained in our social circles. Families often unconsciously prioritize attention to the one perceived to be the neediest; circles understand that need exists in us all. Friends often fall into groupthink, coalescing around one point of view lest the friendship break; circles make room for all viewpoints by sharing personal experiences from the heart and not from dogma. We, too, as individuals can find it difficult to break free of our own view of our story-telling but can use the energy of the circle to help discover something new within ourselves.

In circle we have the opportunity — should we choose it — to share both our pride and our shame; our strength and our vulnerability. It is not important that we reach the same conclusion, we are loved simply for our humanity.

And we don’t need to always be serious. We can laugh, be silly, break into song. We can celebrate this one (messy, wild, crazy, tortured, inspired, rich) life we’ve been given.

Diana Lindsay is a co-founder and co-director of Healing Circles Langley. She is the author of “Something More Than Hope: Surviving Despite the Odds, Thriving Because of Them,” the story of her recovery from stage 4 lung cancer.

Listening Within

 by Corrine Bayley

“You’re not listening!”  How many times has someone said that to you — or heard it from you? We all long to have our stories, our fears, our loves, and our hopes really heard and tenderly held. It helps us attend to what is real. It supports us as we go forward.

My parents were good listeners, and I’ve picked up the skill reasonably well. However, until recently I’ve thought of listening as listening to others. 

Lately I’ve come to realize that the quality of my listening to others relates directly to the quality of my listening within. But it’s not easy.  It requires vulnerability, discipline, and letting go. It requires taking time every day to sit quietly until the internal chatter subsides & I am breathing deeply, fully aware of the present moment, not itching to go anywhere or do anything.

At times like this I am much more aware of my body than usual. More aware of how bodymindspirit is one reality that I separate at the risk of dis-ease.

I like this quote of a doctor telling a patient: “There is nothing wrong with you that what’s right with you can’t fix.” Listening within helps me connect with what’s right with me. Releasing that positive energy is like a warm bath, soothing what hurts and restoring what needs to be whole again. And it makes me a much more relaxed and truthful listener to others.

Ways to nourish listening within

  • Fidelity to a daily practice of solitude and interior silence
  • Gently releasing things that don’t nourish our spirits
  • Living as much as possible in the present moment
  • Sharing with a trusted friend
  • Being aware of what is going on in our bodies
  • Being patient in the darkness

Signs that we can trust what we hear

  • We feel right & peaceful “deep down”, even though we may also feel fear, resistance, insecurity…
  • We are free to speak our truth.
  • We are not dependent on what others think.
  • We are less attached to outcomes.
  • We are drawn to love and to serve.

Corrine Bayley volunteers at Healing Circles Langley. In her former life, she was a Catholic nun, a hospital CEO, a bioethics teacher, and a spiritual director.

Asking Open & Honest Questions

 by Jeanne Strong

Learning to respond to others with honest, open questions instead of counsel, corrections, advice, etc. can be a life-altering practice. With such questions, as Parker Palmer says, we help “hear each other into deeper speech”—a speech that might reveal a turning point in a life, an intuition about one’s health, or an insight into life’s purpose. For ourselves, the practice frees us from having to know “the answer” or solve “the problem.” It allows us to relax into our own humanity and the pleasure that comes from being connected to another.

But what is an open and honest question? The best definition is that the asker could not possibly anticipate the answer to it. So give it a try in your circles, in your marriage, with your friends and family and comment below on what you’ve discovered.


  1. Ask yourself what assumptions you are making.
  2. The best questions are simple questions.
  3. Avoid questions with right/wrong, yes/no answers.
  4. Ask questions aimed at opening doors for the other person rather than satisfying your own curiosity.
  5. Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem – questions about feelings as well as facts.
  6. Questions that invite imagery or metaphor are often helpful.
  7. Trust your intuition in asking questions, even if your instinct seems off the wall.
  8. If you aren’t sure about the question, be quiet, wait, and if it keeps surfacing, ask it.
  9. Watch the pacing of your questions. Questions coming too fast can feel aggressive.
  10. Avoid any storytelling, or behaviors that call attention to yourself.

Jeanne R. Strong, a life-long educator, has been a facilitator for the Center for Courage & Renewal for the past 15 years. As a Healing Circles Langley volunteer, she continues to make meaning in her life by supporting others in leading lives of integrity, change, passion and purpose.