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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Communication, Part 3: Listening to Each Other

In my persistent pursuit of perfect irony, I have a lot to say about how much we talk vs how much we listen.  It is a topic (listening, speaking, words, actions) that is covered at great lengths in the Bible, which should tell us how important it is.  I have split everything I have into a series of three posts.  We have already covered Talking and Listening to God.  This week is Part 3: Listening to Each Other.

Rev. Jenny Styers tells an awesome story:
"While I was completing my summer Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) work in seminary, I was introduced to a woman diagnosed with Stage Four cancer.  She had been in the hospital for well over two months when I met her.  I remember thinking this is such an awful illness for her to endure.

"Yet, this was the first patient our CPE training chaplain told us about during our orientation program.  After our initial training we were given weekly visitation assignments.

"Near the top of my assignment sheet was this woman's name and room number.  I would be the first chaplain intern to go on a pastoral care visit to her room.

"I felt like I needed many more years of training before I could walk into her hospital room.  Before I went into her room I asked the CPE chaplain, 'What can I possibly even say to her that might be of any comfort?'

"I will never forget her response:

"'Why do you think you need to say anything at all?  You will often find that it is not what you will say to a person that helps them heal.  It will be more of what you do that will give them strength to heal.  One of the most important things you can do for people while you are here is to listen to their needs.'

"So I went into this woman's room, and after introducing myself, I asked her how she was feeling, and then I just listened.

"It was on this day that God, through this woman, began to teach me more about how to be a good listener.  I thought I was a pretty good listener prior to this visitation, but this experience further deepened my ability to hear, not only with my ears, but also with my heart.  I visited regularly with this woman throughout the rest of the summer and our time together became very precious to me."

How many times have we uttered those words?  Steph and I lost track of how many times they were said to us back in January, so I can't fathom how often Joe or Christen's parents heard them.  I don't know what to say.

Why do you think you need to say anything at all?

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention - A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. - Rachel Naomi Remen

Listening is a skill stressed everywhere.  In my research for this post, I found information about the importance of listening in a college student handbook, in the business world, in the religious world, in the relationship (romantic and plutonic) world, in a New York Times article about economics, in the political world, in the teaching world, in the medical world, in the world of law, the world of psychology, and articles on good parenting.  The list is staggering.  We know listening is important, yet we choose to ignore it.

Let's put one thing to rest right now: Hearing and listening are two different things.  When I was a kid, I became very good at hearing my parents.  If I was playing a video game, and Mom was talking, the video game was more important.  I became so tired of Mom yelling at me for not listening, that I developed this skill: I would repeat every single word she said.  See...I heard what she was saying well enough to repeat it.  However, I wasn't listening.  As soon as that "conversation" was finished, her words were lost to me.

The sad thing is that this "skill" continued into my marriage.  For years, I would be playing a game or watching TV or working on the computer or reading a book, only paying enough attention to Steph that I could repeat her words.  This action was selfish, stupid, unloving, and cost me a valuable component of a good marriage.

Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear.  If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens.  Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do.  Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.  Listening leads to learning. - University of Minnesota Duluth Student Handbook

I like that second sentence.  "Hearing simply happens."  If you have functioning ears, you can hear the world around you.  You can hear what people are saying.  The National Youth Council says hearing is such a passive quality, it occurs when you sleep.  That makes sense, seeing as alarm clocks, crying babies, smoke alarms, thunderstorms, and anything else that makes a sound can wake us up.  We hear those sounds.  But hearing is not listening.  Listening is something we consciously do.  Jesus said in Mark 4:9, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  We have ears, so we will hear - it takes an open mind and heart to listen.

Listen with an open heart and an open mind to those who love you the most.  You may hear a grain of truth that will later become the foundation of your entire belief system. - Callie Khouri

Where would we be if we didn't listen to others?  When I decided that teaching was the career for me, my first instinct was to teach high school kids.  My advisor, someone I highly respected and trusted, felt that I would be more comfortable and better suited for the younger I went the elementary route...and realized right away that she was right.  I loved it there.  Then, when Central was trying to talk me into taking the eighth grade position, I had zero interest in teaching eighth graders.  I wasn't comfortable with the idea at all.  However, my old college advisor, my wife, my friends and family all believed that my personality would fit perfectly at the eighth grade level.  I listened to them and have never looked back.  Where would I be had I not listened to these people?  Honestly?  I could easily be out of education altogether at this point.  Look at your life.  Where would you be had you not listened?  Sadly, some of you need to answer this question: Where would you be if you had listened?

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?  If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. - 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.  I'm paraphrasing Francis Chan here:  In the Old Testament, we're told how to approach the temple of God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).  In the New Testament, we learn that our bodies are His temple.  We are His temple.  Treat others with honor and respect.  Treat others as though they are the temple of God.  And when we are in God's temple, we are to listen.

Last week's lesson was easier to buy in to: We should revere God and listen to Him.  This week is a classic case of lip service.  We know that we should listen to others.  We say that we should listen to others.  But do we?  Do we revere others and listen to them with the same intense focus we give to God?  God is love after all.  Paul Tillich says, "The first duty of love is to listen."  By not listening to others, you are putting yourself before them.  That goes against God.  That is not love.

If we know that listening to others is so important, why don't we do it?
  1. Because we disagree with them.  We generally don't listen to the people we disagree with.  How arrogant is that?  I'm right, you're wrong.  That's not respectful or loving at all.
  2. Noise.  I mentioned noise last week.  Noise distracts us.  We're all a little ADD when it comes to focusing on what someone else is saying.  Multi-tasking has been defined as a skill in our world, but dare I say it?  Multi-tasking is a distraction.  It's more noise.  How can I truly be listening to someone if I'm splitting my focus on two or three other things?
  3. We're busy thinking of what we're going to say next.  Want to be a better listener?  Learn to shut up.

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak - James 1:19
We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less. - Diogenes Laertius

Parents know.  Teachers know.  Learning cannot exist if one is talking.  The two do not exist simultaneously.  Believe it or not, our brains are built for listening.  The average speech rate is 100-150 words per minute, but the mind is able to absorb 250-500 words per minute.

When you aren't listening to someone, what are you telling that speaker?
  • What they are saying isn't important (or that you believe what you have to say is more important).
  • That you are superior to them in some way.
  • You don't respect them.
  • You don't care for them.
  • You have something more important to do or somewhere more important to be.
  • You don't appreciate them.

Listening builds loyalty.  A funny thing happens when you don't make a practice of listening to people.  They will find others who will.  Anytime employees, spouses, colleagues, children, or friends no longer believe they are being listened to, they seek out people who will give them what they want.  Sometimes the consequences can be disastrous: the end of a friendship, lack of authority at work, lessened parental influence, or the breakdown of a marriage. - John C. Maxwell and Jim Dorman

Please read that again.  That is a powerful, powerful paragraph.  Listening builds loyalty.  When you don't listen to others, they will find someone who will.  When you don't listen to people, a whole mess of stuff can happen: Misunderstandings, which can lead to fighting...You will miss vital information, which will affect you in the future...Others will stop listening to you...Others will flat-out stop talking to you.

Full disclosure.  I love writing these posts every week.  I know that I write them in a way that's teaching and/or challenging, but the truth is, I write them as God presents them to me.  He wants them written this way, and they're not necessarily meant for you, the reader.  They're meant for me.  I learn and grow from writing/reading these posts as well.

Case in point: God had already directed me towards this series when Steph and I experienced a large fight.  No divorce lawyers were called by any means, but it was a sizable argument.  A good portion of the fight stemmed from the fact that I did not feel as though I received much attention from her.  In my mind, she spent all of her time at work.  When she was at home, I did not feel like I had her ear.  When I would try to talk to her, she would check text messages, write on Facebook, or do schoolwork.  Over time, I just stopped talking.  For those that know me, you would have been shocked at how little I spoke at home.

When I started researching for this specific post, I read things like "Others will flat-out stop talking to you," and I thought, Steph needs to read this.  I've stopped talking to her because I realized that she wasn't listening.  We're having problems in our relationship, and it's all her fault.

I smile here.  How many times in the brief life of Cromulent Thoughts have I been in direct violation of Matthew 7:3?  Jesus says, "Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother's eye and not pay attention to the plank in your own eye?"

What was written earlier?  I spent many years playing games, watching TV, reading, and just generally ignoring Steph.  Years.  Consequently, she learned to stop talking to me.  Get it?  I trained her to do that.  Eventually, when she learned that she didn't have my ear, she began sharing it with those at work.  Over time, I became jealous of her job.  It's the only time in the history of our relationship that I felt jealousy.  I was jealous of the time her job was getting.  My time.  If Steph was in the middle of doing something and any one of her student workers called, she dropped everything to answer the phone...yet if I tried to share my day with her, she couldn't even bother looking up from her iPad.  I became angry and eventually verbally lashed out at her.

I started this whole mess with years of poor listening habits and a general lack of attention...then threw a fit when it began to affect me.

Communication used to be our greatest strength as a couple.  I took that for granted, and look at the rap sheet of consequences as a result: I displayed a lack of love, respect, and honor towards my wife (Ephesians 5:25-30, 33; 1 Peter 3:7), I became selfish (Proverbs 28:2; James 4:1-3), I became jealous (Genesis 27:41; 1 Samuel 18:8), I pointed the finger of blame at her (Matthew 7:3; 1 Corinthians 13:5), I became angry (Psalm 37:8; Matthew 5:22; Romans 2:1; Ephesians 4:26-27), and verbally attacked her (Numbers 22:29; Proverbs 15:28; Matthew 12:34-36; Lukes 6:45; James 3:6).

These are just my biblical faults.  Here it is in simpler terms: I nearly wrecked my marriage.  Communication is the key to a happy marriage, and I almost destroyed that.  I did.  Me.  Imagine talking to a wall.  That one-sided conversation is going to get real old, real fast.  Now imagine talking to that wall for years until finally someone enters the room with you.  They're interested in your stories.  They listen intently, ask questions, and laugh with you.  Naturally, that person will be the one you talk to, and the wall will be ignored (as it should be).

I was that wall for many years.

Notice the timeline here.  My mistreatment of Steph occurred in the early years of our marriage.  In August, we will have been married for ten years.  It's not like I was doing this to Steph for the first eight or nine years.  I eventually grew up.  Matured.  Realized my mistakes.  I don't remember when I began doing this, but for some time now, when Steph starts talking, my full attention is on her.  I mute the TV.  I put down my book.  I pause the game.  I listen instead of merely hear.  The problem is that by the time I started doing those thing, the damage had been done.

Here's the good news: In that colossal fight, we listened to each other.  I learned that all of this started with me...years ago.  She learned what she had begun to do.  Sure, we have some work to do - that's what marriage is - but the point is that without learning these lessons, the marriage could have crumbled.  A lack of listening led to our problems, but listening saved the relationship.

When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely - the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears - when you give your whole attention to is. - Jiddu Krishnamurti
The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention. - Richard Moss

How to listen to others better:
  • Stop talking.  Stop thinking about what you're about to say.  Stop thinking of a response to what they're saying.  Recognize the difference between a break in what they're saying and when they're actually finished speaking.  Save your questions/comments until they are finished (unless it's a clarification question).
  • Open your heart, mind, and ears to them.
  • Close out the distractions.
  • Take notes on important points that you'd like to comment on, questions you have, etc.  This will feel weird at first, but it works.  The speaker will feel loved, respected, and honored.  Eventually, you won't need the notes because you will have become a better listener.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.  If you were them, how would you be feeling?  Putting yourself in someone else's shoes makes it easier to listen (not hear) to what they're saying.
  • Find something to respect or find some truth in what is being said, even if you disagree with the other person.  Realize that people aren't always going to think, feel, and reason like you do.  Instead of dismissing them as wrong, listen to find out why they do these things differently.  As Catherine Doucette says, "Every person in this life has something to teach me - and as soon as I accept that, I open myself to truly listening."

Francis Chan asks a great question.  It's a simple question, but the answer will blow you away.  The answer to his question can lead you back to everything that's written here, for better or worse.  About where your heart is.  Your mind.  Your love.  Your respect.  Your priorities.  If you answer this question honestly, you'll learn a lot about yourself because it applies to all three posts in this series:

In every conversation, when it's over, ask yourself: Did I listen more than I spoke?

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