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The Inability to Listen Well Contributes to Many of Our Problems

The Inability to Listen Well Contributes to Many of Our Problems

Commentary by Paul Prather | Religion Unplugged

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As a preacher, I’ve sometimes gotten unearned credit from parishioners for brilliant, witty, life-changing things I’ve said — that I never said. Conversely, I’ve been criticized for scathing, stupid, tone-deaf things I also never said. 

For a lot of reasons, communicating well is harder than it looks. One of the reasons is that people on the other end of the equation sometimes don’t listen any better than I talk. Often I’ve asked myself whether any of us actually hears anything accurately.

We seem to live now in a culture riven by crises of miscommunication. We suffer for this in our families and even in our body politic. Maybe it’s always been this way, I don’t know. But it certainly seems worse today.

I recently received a short essay from a friend, who didn’t want his name used in this column. Retired, he previously had a long and varied career as a priest, military chaplain and therapist.

In his essay, he estimated he spent 50 years and 80,000 hours listening to people’s problems. From this extensive experience, he said, came two core observations about how people listen — or, mainly, don’t listen — and why it matters. 

From these two listening errors flow a torrent of hurt feelings, rage and interpersonal turmoil. We all live with the ill effects, individually and as a society.

First, he said, we fail to recognize that when we’re communicating with others, we’re no longer existing so much in an objective reality as in a reality we’re creating for ourselves. 

That is, we never hear things exactly as they are. We hear thing as we are, through the presumptions and biases residing in our heads. We’re inclined to make others responsible for our angers, our hurts and our grudges. 

Then we nurse those destructive assumptions, replaying the supposed offenses over and over. We tell ourselves errant stories, then filter all our interactions with other people through that mess we’ve made.

 “We continue to give free rent to bad stuff between our ears by repeating our self-justifying,” my friend said.

For example — this is my interpretation — if your older cousin bullied you when you were kids, you may continue to hear everything he says today through your perception of him as a bully, even though you’re both now in your 60s. Very likely, you’re different people now than you were in grade school. He could be kind, but you’d fail to perceive it.

The second core truth is that we don’t even understand what words are. 

Words aren’t the actual meaning of a message. Words are merely symbols. The meaning of the message resides inside the sender, who’s trying to pass that meaning on to us.

“Only the one choosing to speak is qualified to say what he intends and means,” my friend wrote.

But the recipient has to supply some meaning for the symbols he or she is receiving from the speaker. So, the recipient is interpreting constantly, by necessity, through the bends and presumptions of his or her own mind. The likelihood for misinterpretation is great.

“These two errors of human behavior are natural, universal, inevitable and predictable unless we understand our own tendency to judge (too) quickly,” my friend continued. 

 “When such quick judgments of fault finding, of getting the short end, are encouraged by those in positions of authority, then millions are encouraged in their natural tendencies to further mistrust, fear, hate and (commit) violence. … The result is we have a culture of insanity, a pandemic of mistrust and fear, generated by not understanding our two common errors.”

I agree.

Is there a solution? How do we become better listeners, really hearing instead of simply confirming our own preexisting blind spots and wounds?

Here a few of my suggestions for becoming a better listener. I haven’t mastered all (or any) of these, but I’m working on them:

  • Take care what you listen to, as Jesus said. Try to tune out troublemakers, demagogues and rabble-rousers. Tune in peacemakers and uplifters. If you feed your mind fear, you’ll constantly be afraid. If you feed your mind rage, you’ll be angry. Find yourself some messengers with good news. 
  • Take care how you listen, too. Truly listen, even when somebody is criticizing you. Don’t just pretend to listen while you think up your nasty response. 
  • Remember that what you’re “hearing” isn’t necessarily what the other person means to be saying. You’re only hearing words, which are symbols, not the person’s intent. 
  • Don’t interrupt. Let the other person finish. Show respect. When the speaker is done, calmly ask questions to make sure you understood.
  • Focus on the facts of a matter, not on your feelings. Feelings are natural, but they’re unreliable.
  • Give folks the benefit of the doubt. Assume a speaker actually means well, in his own crazy way. Remind yourself that you don’t know everything, either. Be humble.

Paul Prather has been a rural Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky for more than 40 years. Also a journalist, he was The Lexington Herald-Leader’s staff religion writer in the 1990s, before leaving to devote his full time to the ministry. He now writes a regular column about faith and religion for the Herald-Leader, where this column first appeared. Prather’s written four books. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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