Learning to Listen in a Lonely World

‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

Olivia Laing – The Lonely City

In her haunting book, The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the theme of loneliness, especially as experienced in urban contexts. Loneliness is not alleviated by mere physical proximity to people, but by genuine connection. I’ve written before about how this is both an opportunity and a challenge to churches, as we seek to model genuine, inclusive, life-giving community.

I was reminded again of Laing’s words this week, when I stumbled across this short documentary.

‘In a Lonely World, They’re Here to Listen.’

Filmmaker, Sarah Baril Gaudet, writes,

‘I remember feeling very alone when I moved to Montreal in 2013. Moving about the city, I also felt the loneliness in the strangers around me. The harm isolation does to our mental well-being is well documented, but in a world full of people, finding someone to emotionally connect with seems like an impossible task.’

Enter, the Benevolents.

The documentary profiles the work of Tel-Aide, a call centre in Montreal, in which volunteers offer a listening ear, without judgment, to anyone in need of someone to talk to.

In the film we see new recruits receive training, to equip them to be a listening ear. It’s fascinating hearing them discuss why they wanted to volunteer; to better-understand the pain of those around them, to give something back to those in need, to grow personally through the experience. And in the film we hear them grapple with important questions such as how to respond to difficult conversation topics, the difference between empathy and sympathy, and how to listen without taking on the pain and burdens of the caller.

It’s a beautiful short film, which highlights the simple but profound power of offering a listening ear.

At one point, the film focuses on one of the trainers, who takes a call and then afterwards invites feedback from the volunteers. What struck me was her sheer focus. She wasn’t distracted, either by the camera trained on her face, or the class watching on. She was entirely engaged with the person on the phone, giving her all her attention, and listening actively and attentively.

This is quite a skill, and it reminded me of the famous quote from Stephen Covey,

‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’

Stephen Covey

Listening Badly

As listeners, so often our minds are doing something else – anything else – other than giving the person speaking our full attention. We may be thinking of what advice to give, working out how to reassure the person and diffuse an awkward moment, considering how to deflect the conversation onto a topic we’re more comfortable with (ourselves, for example!), or simply scrolling through or phones – or our minds – whilst pretending to be listening.

Listening well, in a way that honours and benefits the speaker, requires focus and discipline. Done badly, it can reinforce the negative feelings of the person speaking:

  • “I’m a problem to be solved.”
  • “I’m a drain on this person’s time.”
  • “I’m uninteresting or unimportant compared to x, y, or z.”

But done well, listening is an immeasurably powerful way to make people feel known, dignified, and valued.

Listening Well

There’s a beautiful moment in Mark 5, where Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, and is interrupted by a lady who has experienced bleeding for twelve years, and who received healing simply by touching the corner of his robe. (I’ve spoken before on the version of the story from Luke’s gospel, the talk’s here, and there’s an illustration here about black pepper and holy robes).

Jesus asked “who touched my robes?” and the disciples objected saying, “so many people brushed against you!” Presumably they were wanting to rush him along, as Jairus’ daughter’s situation was dire. But Mark writes,

‘But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.’

(Mark 5.32-33)

Jesus wouldn’t be rushed. He waited for the woman, even while others pressured him to move on. And when she spoke to him she told him ‘the whole truth.’ I doubt this was just the shortened version – the events of the previous five minutes. I imagine she poured out her twelve years of pain. And Jesus listened.

  • He could have said he was busy.
  • He could have made her feel unimportant, berated her for slowing him down, or rebuked her for daring to touch him.
  • He could have used the demands of others as an excuse to move on.
  • He could have said “You’ve got your healing, what more do you want?”

But he did none of those things. Jesus listened.

And I daresay that the healing that did for the woman’s soul was equal to the healing done to her body.

I want to learn to listen like that.

Our lonely world needs us to learn to listen like that.


If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

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