As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day. Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers. During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent. I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them. It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit. Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well. One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.
In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions. Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak. Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.
When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation. So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk. When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation. We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested. When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating. Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying. And finally, we get distracted easily. Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone. Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.
Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings. We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda. Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.” If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.
We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him. We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say. So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us. As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal. Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.” Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.
There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that’s what she said.” Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another. This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking. If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us. Amen.