CONVERSATION: TALKING AND LISTENING

Too many of us are more interested in talking than we are in listening. There is nothing wrong with wanting to talk, but if all we want to do is talk and not listen, then it seems to me we do have a problem.

I’m often disappointed by conversations I hear about and read about from politicians in Washington, D.C., Bible and theology scholars, Christian authors, leaders of church denominations, church members, friends, and family members. So much of the time there is much more talking than there is listening. The last couple of weeks I read two articles that challenged and encouraged my thinking in this area.

One was a review of a book dealing with a controversial subject among many Christians who take the Bible seriously. Early in the piece the reviewer made an observation about the author that caught my attention.  Reviewer Tim Challies notes about the book that the book’s “dedication proves that Schreiner [the author] means to speak as a friend to friends. An eminently gentle man, he never comes close to being harsh or offensive. He very much wants to position this as a discussion between friends of secondary importance.” At the end of the review Challies notes the author’s affection for his disagreeing friends is a regular theme and “he gladly offers them every benefit of the doubt.”

Think about some of these insights. Wouldn’t it be helpful and contribute to many of our conversations if we spoke as friends, if we were somewhat gentle refraining from being harsh or offensive, and if we more often gave those with whom we were conversing the benefit of the doubt?

The other article I read that primed the pump for me in thinking about conversation asked the question “Can You Hear Me Now?” In the heading of this article in Christianity Today author Nathan Betts suggests “In an age when most are rushing to have their say, Christians can love by giving others a hearing.”

Betts’ basic point in his article is that many times we stop listening to those who do not agree with us and begin formulating our arguments to respond. Instead of listening to what is being said we listen for what they might say. He suggests that “Listening to another person implicitly says, ‘I want to learn from you even if I don’t agree with you’.”

I think Betts is correct when he postulates that “Perhaps one of the reasons many of us find it difficult to listen in conversations is because genuine listening take more work and critical thought.” My personal experience in these kinds of conversations is that listening also requires a great deal of patience. It’s usually not just us who is not listening to what is being said; our discussion partner often is doing the same thing.

I completely agree with Betts’ conclusion that “one of the most significant ways we can navigate tough conversations is to ensure that each person in the conversation is heard.” Unfortunately, we cannot ensure we are being heard, but we can do our best to ensure the person we are speaking with is being heard.

Having been challenged by both articles, in my conversations I want to be more like the author of the book Challies reviewed and a better and more understanding listener Betts calls for. How about you?

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ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?

Usually the question “Are you talking to me?” is confrontational, but in asking it this morning I mean it. Like I have done the past several years, I am again reading the book of Proverbs during the month of January. There are 31 days in January and 31 chapters in the book, so I read a chapter a day. The last verse in yesterday’s chapter and two verses in the first 13 verses of today’s chapter got my attention.

The last verse yesterday, 17:28, is a verse I have always liked and often quoted: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” When I read this I thought of all the people I know who could benefit from it if they would just listen to it.

When I read 18:2 this morning, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions,” I remembered the last verse from yesterday and then thought about the current state of political discussion on TV, Facebook, and in Washington. I said to myself: “many of those people could certainly benefit if they would take this verse to heart!”

Eleven verses later I came to “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” That reminded me of what I had read a little earlier so I went back and read verse 2 again. I was right, the two verses relate. Then I remembered what I had read yesterday, went back to 17:28, and thought “these three all relate.” I looked the verses up in a couple of other translations and what I thought was confirmed. The GNB rendering of Proverbs 18:13 is especially strong: “Listen before you answer. If you don’t, you are being stupid and insulting.”

I was thinking about all the back and forth I read and hear from pundits, politicians, Facebook posts, and other discussions and how great it would be if those people would read and put into practice these three verses from Proverbs.

Then I had an epiphany. The reason I read the book of Proverbs each January is to learn and put into practice its wisdom. I’m not reading Proverbs to be reminded of the foolishness and folly of others, I’m reading this book of wisdom to have my own shortcomings pointed out and to be instructed in how to do better.

And so I asked the question, “Are you talking to me?” Perhaps I should listen more and more carefully as well as talk less.

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ARE YOU LISTENING?

While doing my cardio workout at the Fitness Center last week I watched as the gentleman in front of me on a stationary bicycle listened to two fellow exercisers talk.

The first guy went on and on about how bad the Lakers were. And it wasn’t just the players who were bad, he was really unhappy with the ownership and management. Based upon what I could hear I think he thought he knew a lot more about the Lakers and professional basketball than he does. After about 15 minutes he blustered off.

Right after the first guy left the man on the adjacent stationary bicycle dismounted and began to talk to the gentleman. He unloaded about a few subjects but mostly went on and on about the current state of politics. According to him no one really knows what they are doing. Again, based upon what I could hear I think he thought he knew a lot more about politics than he does.  After about 15 minutes he left.

As the gentleman on the stationary bicycle dismounted he accidently kicked my elliptical machine and apologized. I said, “You are a quite a listener.” To which he replied something along the lines, “Somebody has to do it, it’s very important.” He had not refuted either of them, or agreed with them, or joined in with them. He just listened. I told him I was impressed and thought that he could be a therapist. And I suggested that perhaps I should make an appointment to see him.

He told me he had been a probation officer for 30 years and had learned the importance listening. I told him I was a retired pastor and unfortunately had done too much talking and not enough listening. He then began to talk about his two uncles who were pastors and about his church. I was finished with my workout and needed to get going so I again affirmed him and told him he inspired me. We exchanged names and shook hands.

As I thought about what I had witnessed and our discussion it occurred to me that I missed a golden opportunity to follow his example. I wish I would have been more like him and invited him to say more. I’m pretty sure listening to him would have been well worth my time and encouraging.

My confession is that not just as a pastor, but in a lot others roles as well I have talked too much and not listened enough. I’m also fairly confident I really don’t know as much as I think I do. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot to say that is worth hearing. But so do a lot of people I talk with and I am challenged and inspired to be a better listener.

I don’t need to always agree with what I hear nor do I need to always refute what I hear. Sometimes I just need to take the time and listen. If it’s important for me to be listened to, and it is, then it is also important for me to listen.

I look forward to seeing my new friend at the Fitness Center and talking with him.

Are you listening?

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P.S. If you’re really interested in the content of this post I encourage you to get and read a novel entitled The Listener by Taylor Caldwell first published in 1976. I’m confident you will not only enjoy the book but also be impacted by it.