O Master, let me not seek as much … to be understood as to understand.
From the “Prayer of St. Francis”
Just about everyone these days agrees that our collective ability to talk constructively and civilly with one another about contentious issues is under stress these days. It’s like that old chestnut, though, about the weather: Everybody complains about it, but nobody ever does a thing to fix it.
Well, an event I attended last month has given me reason to believe that there is a way forward—if we are willing to do the necessary work and let God sufficiently humble us.
“Can We Talk?” was a two-day program at Queens University sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council. The tagline for the event was, “It is possible for us to disagree with grace again.” Author Amanda Ripley was the featured speaker, and she talked about her own frustrations as a journalist trying to communicate across ideological, political, economic, and racial divides. Over time, she realized that what should have been her most obvious task was actually her biggest failure: She was a poor listener.
Rather than listening closely and carefully to people whose views differed from hers, Ripley consistently found herself formulating rebuttals in her head as these people talked. She was hearing their words, but not really paying attention. What they actually said ultimately mattered less to her than her own need to get contrary points across when it was her turn to speak. In other words, she realized that she was talking at people instead of listening to them.
Once she discovered this about herself—and, in conversations with friends, she found that she wasn’t alone in behaving this way—Ripley decided that there had to be a better way to talk through divergent opinions about contentious issues, and it began with learning how to listen better. Ripley spent the rest of her address sharing with us the fruit of her informal education.
At a workshop the next day, we had the chance to put her techniques to the test in a series of one-on-one conversations with total strangers. The verdict? Attentive listening works. How does it work?
Simply put, the goal is to understand the other person’s perspective well enough to restate it back as accurately, eloquently, and charitably as possible—and then ask if you got it right. If so, then great. If not, then ask for the other person’s help in getting it right.
It sounds simple, but listening for understanding like this is a pretty rigorous activity, primarily because it requires the listener to focus so intently not only on what the speaker says, but also on how the speaker says it. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth often reveal just as much about people as do their words. We intuitively know this is the case when we’re talking with our friends. It’s equally true when talking to those with whom we disagree.
Listening for understanding also requires us to keep our mouths shut and resist the temptation to respond and rebut. That’s hard. But, then again, the most effective peacemakers are often those who say the least and listen the most. Focusing our complete attention on someone else’s story has a way of making that other person less of an opponent and more of a fellow human being with hopes and dreams, disappointments and struggles that may be unique, but certainly aren’t unfamiliar. That alone makes a huge difference in breaking down walls that divide and replacing them with bridges that connect. As Ripley puts it, people will not listen to us until they feel like they’ve been heard.
Can we become better listeners? I believe we can. Will it make a difference in the way we communicate with others? I know it will. Does this have anything to do with bringing the kingdom of God to Charlotte? Of course it does. At the very heart of our faith is the conviction that God was not content to deal with us from a distance, and so God became like us in every way in order to share our lives, assume our burdens, and save our souls. We believe, then, that the way of redemption begins with a relationship. That’s the model Jesus gives us. We do indeed have good news to share, but wouldn’t it be something if our most effective, enduring witness as followers of Jesus here in Charlotte started with keeping our mouths shut and our ears open?
May the peace of Christ be with you!