Just Listen…

Chapter 6 in Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White is about a subject that I used to love to teach.

The problem is, I had a hard time practicing what I taught.   Sounds hypocritical doesn’t it?

Listening.   The chapter is entitled “Shhh! Just Listen!”

Some would say that listening has become a lost communication skill. Instead of listening, people just speak.  They won’t be quiet and consider the other person’s message.   Today in our era of heated political rhetoric, we are often over-heated by the words that others use and we want to respond in anger or passion.

But what is missing?


Adam Hamilton says “One of the reasons for today’s culture wars is the unwillingness of people on either the left or the right to listen to those with whom they disagree. They are quick to speak, and quick to anger, but slow to listen.

Hamilton uses an old expression that communications teachers are aware of: “God give us two ears and only one mouth in direct proportion to how much he intends us to use them.” He cites scripture from James “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

He does not get into the details of the problematic nature of human listening which I will attempt to do in a small number of words. First of all, the main barrier to effective listening is attention span and everyone knows that we are experiencing very shrinking attention spans in our world today.  At the Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, everyone remembers the famous address by Abraham Lincoln but few know of the 13,000 word oration delivered by Edward Everett that lasted two hours.  That was very common length for a speech in the 1860’s; people expected messages to last a long time and they were prepared to concentrate.

Today, the normal person barely can train their mind to concentrate on a message for 15 to 20 seconds before they get distracted by some environmental distraction or some personal mental distraction. Good listening requires us to fight distractions and more and more of us fail in this area.

If a speaker is expressing something we dislike, we may really stop listening.   It is very common for “listeners” to quit listening and start “loading the mental ammunition” that we will fire back at the speaker.

Listening experts relate that the media world we live in effects listening. We want instant answers.  We watch one hour shows that conclude in 50 minutes.  We text, snap, chat and tweet.  We are quick to communicate and today, it seems that everyone has an important thought that must be expressed.  Television encourages online voting, text responses to the show, and websites are urging us all to respond.  Facebook encourages us to share the details of our lives with all our friends.  When we are quickly expressing ourselves, we forget to listen to the responses of others.  When we think our voice really counts, we emphasize expression over listening to others.

Let me share with you a secret that underlies Pastor Hamilton’s comments; the most admired characteristic of a wonderful friend is a listening ear.

My wife, who does not like for me to write about her, is a splendid example of this. Every day I see her put her concerns aside and listen to the concerns of others.  She is a humble person [she will not like that I just wrote that and will ask me to delete it].  She has things that are on her mind like all of us but she will not express her ideas if she is in a listening situation with a friend.  People say she is quiet.   That is true.  It is true because she spends a lot of time listening.

I on the other hand am one of those people who express. I can learn a lot from her example.  Instead of talking, I know I should be listening.  Instead of expounding, I should be listening.  Instead of arguing, I should be listening.

I know that so much of today’s problems would be eliminated if people would just listen. They could actually think about what the other person is saying.  They could consider their point of view and maybe begin to understand why they have it.   They could build a bridge instead of a wall.

It is so hard but the title of Chapter 6 is so apt… “Shhh! Just Listen!”

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