Listen, Someone Has to Go First

by Amanda Box

conversation-1262311_960_720Listening is one of the most validating things you can do for another person. When someone is sincerely listening to me, I feel significant, loved, and in context. M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled that the most valuable thing one can give another is to listen! Of course God is prone to remind us to listen as well! I feel that in the act of trying to understand me, there is an impressive humility, suspension of judgment and a desire to learn about the things that are difficult for me to express. And then, not so magically, I am curious about their perspective, anxious to ask questions, and adopting the same humility.

This is a lovely picture of a conversation, but it can’t happen unless someone listens first. I’m not so sure why listening first is so difficult, but it is. Count the people you know that are superior listeners – it doesn’t take long does it? I think the difficulty must have something to do with this deep longing to be understood and feel the validation I described above. But in this anxious push to be understood, we sabotage the whole process and probably make things worse by not listening to others first.

During many serious discussions, we are primarily trying to get the other person to understand our motives and actions, which on the surface is quite reasonable and well intentioned. During this process, big verbal chunks of details are launched by both parties with little chance of one being understood by the other. While I see my own message as an explanation, the recipient very likely sees the information as a refusal to listen and further evidence of defensive behavior. The whole exchange is like a big verbal game of Red Rover, where no one ever breaks through. Have you ever watched C-Span when congressmen talk past each other?

At best, listening is tough and I’m sure each of us can list a page full of internal and external distractions to explain why. Matthew 7:12 says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We are desperate to be understood, so if we listen first and are just as desperate to understand another human being, our chances for mutual success increase exponentially. Stephen Covey, in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People provides this axiom, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”

During times of transition, church leaders are certainly responsible for clearly communicating what is next to the church family who is looking to them for strong leadership. However, I’m convinced that an equally important part of being a strong leader during transition is to be a disciplined listener.

Do you get a turn? Do you deserve the same courtesy, respect, and application of the golden rule? Absolutely, but someone has to listen first.

Below are some questions that admonish each of us to ask ourselves:

  1. Do I care? If not, I’m in big trouble on the listening front.
  2. What assumptions am I making? Are the assumptions based on outside observable information, or my own internal conclusions?
  3. Am I asking questions because I sincerely want to know the answers or is there some other motive? “Are you serious?” is not a question; it’s a thinly veiled insult.
  4. Do I feel compassion? If not, is it because I’m angry or defensive? It’s ok to be both, but I have to be honest with myself because no one if fooled if I pretend otherwise.
  5. Is my internal voice respectful or am I plotting brilliant and witty monologs?
  6. What about my responses? Am I paraphrasing to make sure I understand? Am I really responding to what was just said, or is my priority to make sure the other person knows all the details that will validate my point of view?

To wrap up these few listening highlights, the most practical thing to keep in mind is just how desperate people are to be understood. That desperation fuels every other communication choice. With our church families, we simply have to work a little harder for positive outcomes during transition. If we can seek first to understand another’s point of view, this may very well be the key to mercifully ending the infinite Red Rover game, prevent escalation of negativity, and reach mutual understanding. When both parties feel the validation of being understood, we can begin to work toward a solid and lasting solution together

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