(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

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My message series this month is entitled “Seasons change and so can we!”  Today I’ll examine the topic of changing insensitivity.  Next week, I’ll look at changing a fear of scarcity.  And in two weeks time, we as a congregation will examine and discuss together the topic of changing implicit biases.

This series is one that emphasizes my belief that we are each change agents.  We live for a purpose – to change for the better ourselves… so that we can, in turn, change the world for the better.

Todays topic on changing insensitivity came to me about two months ago.  I was attending our monthly Sunday Planning Team meeting.  The agenda comprised sharing team member feedback on recent services, as well as discussing plans for upcoming ones.  Half-way through the meeting, however, I realized something was wrong.  Instead of being a true meeting – one that combined the shared thoughts of all those attending – it had become a meeting of one.  I was doing most of the talking.  I was leading but not facilitating.  I was not engaging in the kind of collaboration I encourage.  I focused mostly on points I wanted to make.  I failed to be aware of what others might be thinking or feeling.  I was using the force of my words to direct the meeting.  In other words, I was acting and speaking with insensitivity toward people I consider not only colleagues, but also good friends.

When I thought about my insensitivity later that day, I realized it was but a small example of what I decry in our society and world.   People everywhere are often terribly insensitive to the thoughts, feelings or dignity of others.    People speak far more than they listen.  They frequently don’t care how others might be hurt or adversely affected by their words or actions.  To be sensitive has come to be considered weak and ineffective.  Being politically correct was compared with being a snowflake in last year’s election – someone so delicate that they melt under the light of truth.  Boldness, arrogance and politically incorrect words have become the mark of strength in today’s world.

Like many of you, I’ve been saddened by this recent phenomena.  But I was even more saddened when I realized what I dislike in others can also be found in me.  Fortunately, I had enough sensitivity in that Sunday Planning team meeting to shut up (permanently gagging any minister is almost an impossibility!) and instead I began to listen and solicit other opinions.  And I hope that sensitivity will continue in future meetings I attend.

As I’ve thought about insensitivity in the world and in me, I believe three are three ways one can change it.  Doug’s three paths to greater sensitivity, and thus less insensitivity, are 1) be aware of others and their feelings at all times, 2) listen more than speak, and 3) always practice gentleness.

In any area of human interaction, I believe one must first be situationally aware of – or sensitive to – the feelings, thoughts, culture and background of others.  That involves using discernment to perceive how others feel and think, as well as immersing oneself in different surroundings to better understand the lives, traditions and challenges of others.  

As many of you know, I believe self-awareness is a worthy quality to have.  If a person is not able to perceive and admit to their strengths and weaknesses, then one has no hope of evolving and growing.  Coupled with self-awareness, however, is a complimentary ability to be fully aware of situations – with a special focus on sensing the feelings and thoughts of others. 

Most of us know the clues that help us perceive how others feel in any interaction.   The key is to remember to look for the clues and be sensitive to their existence.  Facial expressions are perhaps the most helpful clue’s for perceiving how others feel or think.  Does a person’s face show boredom, sadness, disapproval or surprise?  Do they maintain eye contact, or are they looking down or away?   Faces are windows into another soul.  When we perceive another’s inner fears, sorrows or joys, we can then sensitively adjust our speech and actions – to be more calming, apologetic, or upbeat

Experts also suggest we look for body language clues – are people we meet or speak with engaged and eagerly leaning into a conversation?  Or, do they lean away, slouch or seem disinterested?  Folded arms are a universal sign of disapproval or defensiveness.  Looking at the clock or one’s phone, or even worse – sleeping – these are obvious signs of disinterest.

Being aware, however, is not only about being sensitive to emotions and body language.  It also includes being sensitive to a situation.  Is it the right time or place to email, speak or act?  What’s clues about culture, tradition or values of other people can be used to guide a conversation? 

Also, can we expand our situational sensitivity by intentionally placing ourselves in unfamiliar or challenging places?  It was enlightening for me, as I know it was for other former Gathering members, to have our former church located downtown in Over-the-Rhine.  Most Gathering members lived in the suburbs but consciously chose to attend a church in an area where whites are a minority, where the homeless and poor predominate, and where the hurting and lost often end up – the addicts, prostitutes and mentally challenged.  For me, it opened my eyes to the conditions prevalent in such neighborhoods and to the humanity of area residents.  I know I am more sensitive as a result.

Like many former Gathering members, I particularly remember a former member named Danny.  He has some undefined mental challenges that may include Tourette’s Syndrome.  Danny would speak out in the middle of a service, gesticulate with his hands and arms, get up and walk around, or otherwise cause a mild disturbance.  His actions were sometimes annoying and they were certainly odd to visitors who did not know him.  But, as we grew to be aware of Danny’s life – his mental challenges and his lack of family or support systems, we saw how he’d overcome those obstacles to be a kind, concerned and self-sufficient man.  Keith and I occasionally see Danny and we stop and have a chat.  Putting ourselves in places where one can meet people like Danny is helpful for anyone – it broadens our knowledge and, hopefully, our empathy.

I lament the loss of that church location even as I am deeply thankful for this place.  Fortunately, I know that I and others in this congregation have multiple opportunities to serve and interact with the homeless and poor.  Increasing sensitivity to challenged persons is one reason why I encourage serving at the Lighthouse Sheakley homeless shelter, at the Valley Interfaith Community Resource Center – only a few miles from here, and at the UpSpring summer camp for homeless children.  Some of you tutor at area disadvantaged schools.  I firmly believe such interactions help not only those we serve, but also us.  We get out of the bubbles in which at least I too often live – and we open ourselves to the wider world around us which needs our awareness and help.

The second path to sensitivity is to listen more than speak.  That means one must not only hear what another says, one must to be an active listener – a person who engages in conversation to learn, empathize, and respect others. 

Many experts claim that listening is the most fundamental of interpersonal communication skills.  As a culture, we admire those who speak passionately and eloquently.  But, as experts say, eloquence is secondary to the ability to comprehend, assimilate and show concern for what has been heard.  Far too often, I will hear words spoken to me, but I am too focused on what I want to say or what I believe to be true – and thus do not listen to and understand the content or emotions of what has been said.  I hear but I don’t listen.

To become an active listener, like being more aware, involves conscious effort.  Active listening uses of all of the senses.  One not only hears a speaker, one also sees, smells and perceives underlying facts and feelings of what someone says.  Active listeners are alert and attuned.  Their body posture leans toward the speaker. Arms are never crossed but are instead loose and open.  Active listeners offer continuing verbal and non-verbal feedback with periodic smiles, nods, or “mmmn – hmmm’s”.  Active listeners also mirror what is said by expressing a relevant emotion – a laugh at something funny, a look of sorrow at something sad, or a shake of the head at something disappointing.  Such mirroring lets the speaker know they’ve been both heard and understood.

Active listeners also ask clarifying questions of what a person has said.   They remember a few key points (most especially the speaker’s name!) and include them in a brief summary once a speaker concludes.  Those who are excellent listeners fully give themselves to the other.  They do not think of what they want to say when the other is talking.  Nor do they interrupt to argue or change the subject.  They not only make a speaker feel as if they have been heard, active listeners make the effort to comprehend and empathize with what’s been said.  This does not mean a listener must agree with a speaker.  But, and this is a critical but, sensitive people – those who are excellent listeners – they let go of their egos to fully understand and show respect.

Finally, I believe the third way to be sensitive is to be gentle at all times.  Gentleness is not weakness, but instead shows consideration and kindness in all that one says and does.  The operating principle of gentleness is to do no harm to the feelings of others.

Gentleness is a spiritual ideal valued in all world religions.  The Bible says that one’s actions should always be peaceful, gentle, and merciful.  Jesus described himself as being gentle and humble of heart and he asked his followers to be the same.  The Buddha said that no matter what else a person does in life, he or she must be gentle if his or her intention is to never hurt or harm another.

The challenge for all of us is to disagree with someone while still being gentle.  President Obama wisely said people can disagree without being disagreeable.  That’s an art that is difficult to practice but must nevertheless be everyone’s intention.  When I believe I should share my hurt feelings with an offender, I try to use what I call a verbal, or wirttien, “love sandwich.”  I first thank the person for their opinion or action – doing so without any sarcasm, judgement or anger.  Then I tell them in a kind way how I wish things had happened instead – once again not judging the other but making them aware of the substance of my disappointment.  I finally conclude my communication with an offender by again expressing love – telling him or her how appreciative I am for them and the specific ways they help or are kind to me.  I sandwich my disappointment in between two slices of love.  That not only helps me maintain loving feelings for the offender – it usually helps him or her accept what I’ve said.

I believe gentleness also sometimes means that we forgive and forget offenses.  We let go of a desire to tell another how hurt we are.

I’ve learned the hard way that telling someone I’ve been hurt by a mild offense is not worth it.  Life is too short to be critical about many things in life.   We are all imperfect and often do not intend to be so.  We just are.

The Buddha, like Jesus, encouraged forgiveness.  One should strive to be mindful of one’s anger, Buddha said, and then work to let go of it – as a way to build peace in oneself and in others.  Forgiveness represents the highest ideal of gentleness when one purposefully decides not to add harm on top of harm. 

Acting with awareness, active listening and gentleness echoes the universal ethic to practice the Golden Rule.  All world religions and all forms of spirituality include the Golden Rule in their beliefs – we are to treat others at least equal to how we want to be treated.  When I take the time to consider how I must be sensitive to the feelings of others – how I might hurt another – and then go out of my way not to cause hurt, I treat another how I want to be treated.  When people are treated with sensitivity, they naturally respond with the same.  Peace, even in the smallest of situations, is thus created and spread into the world.