I'm currently enrolled in an online pastoral care course through Asbury seminary, and one of the required texts for the course is Michael P. Nichols's The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationship.
So, when I saw this on the reading list (and saw that it was the longest book on the list), I wasn't exactly thrilled. It's not that I don't think I have more to learn, I'm just a slow reader, and maybe I could better spend my reading time on other things, things that I'm not at all good at. It didn't help when the first page was putting me to sleep.
As it turns out, the book is fascinating, makes a lot of sense, and is totally enlightening. I feel like I'm starting to understand so many dynamics in my interactions with people that I never even noticed before, or that I just could never quite put my finger on. (Be warned! If you and I talk any time soon, I'll probably be listening and thinking, 'ah, now here is a textbook case of ...' You know, since I'm an expert now and all.)
Sometimes people just don't seem to ever listen, or can just be really hard to talk to - we all know about that. But then Nichols points out that "it is possible for people to change; all we have to do is change our responses to each other. We are not victims--we are participants, in a real way, and the consequences of our participation are profound" (53). In other words, two people communicating or failing to communicate always involves... two people. If I want things to change, I have to try changing my role in the interaction - maybe assumptions I'm bringing to the conversation, ways that I'm antagonizing them or enabling them in some bad habits, whatever it is.
Sometimes when you're talking to someone, other relationships of theirs will cloud their ability to hear you clearly. You ask a question about something they're doing, and they hear a criticism, because mom or dad was always criticizing. You complement them, and they hear you trying to get something out of them, because their boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is always trying to manipulate them like that. They transfer the other person's intentions and meaning onto what you are saying, because that's how they've learned to hear people. That's frustrating, because it distorts how they hear you and causes misunderstandings... but maybe, Nichols suggests, if we can get past the frustration, we can learn something from it (46). If someone is always interpreting your words as criticism, maybe that should tell you they need more praise and affirmation in general. Rather than just being frustrated by the misunderstandings, we can use them to help us understand the other person better and relate to them in new, positive ways.
How many times have I found myself 'graciously' allowing someone to speak their piece, all the while searching for the words I can use to prove that they're wrong (or that I'm still right) as soon as they're done? But is that really listening? "Simply holding your tongue while someone speaks isn't the same thing as listening. To really listen you have to suspend your own agenda, forget about what you want to say, and concentrate on being a receptive vehicle for the other person" (77). Set aside your agenda and forget about what you want to say. That's probably not our first impulse. But if I'm really going to love the person I'm listening to, shouldn't I be able to set myself aside for a while and truly focus on them?
The book keeps surprising me and challenging me with simple yet powerful insights like these.
And all of this is starting to change the way I understand and try to practice James 1:19: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."
In the US today, with all of the racial division, political division, the divisions within denominations and congregations and families, the general animosity and strife between disagreeing parties, couldn't we use a little more careful and caring (in other words, Christian) listening?
Well... what are you waiting for?