Thinking before you speak is harder than it appears. Conversation is by nature reflexive: you speak and I reply. It is dialogue. But how is it possible that as soon as you finish speaking, I can begin replying. Quite simply, what you say makes sense to me. Your words follow a predictable pattern.
Consider this paragraph:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?
Most people familiar with the language can rearrange the letters as they are reading so that the paragraph makes sense even with the many errors in it. We can do it because somewhere hidden in the brain there is the capacity for words, language and world-view that can put the paragraph together so that it makes sense. It happens quickly and without much effort.
Every conversation uses a measure of this capacity. We have predicable greetings with expected responses. We usually follow the norm. We have patterns of relationships. Seldom do we do the unexpected. There are patterns of daily conversations that slip easily over potentially difficult feelings because no one really wants to reveal struggles. These are expected patterns with worldviews we understand.
We recently experienced an interesting misunderstanding. A recent immigrant was driving home when she saw lights flashing behind her. She stopped expecting the police to drive by. He stopped behind her. Assuming he wanted to talk with her, she got out of the car. In her pervious cultural context this was the right thing to do, a sign of respect. She was ordered to get back into the car. She did. Nothing happened, he stayed in the car. Assuming that he was not interested in her, she drove off. More lights flashing. Now the policeman was frightened. Normally when people drive off there is the potential for all kinds of danger (drugs, guns, etc). On both her part and his, the actions were interpreted through their own cultural grid. It all turned out well, but revealed to us how easily misunderstanding occurs because words and actions are always understood within a worldview with established patterns of communication.
In most conversations, we know what to do and what is expected. Usually we follow the pattern. And usually this is the right thing. We don’t think about it. In fact, we can gloss over those matters that seem a little off.
Sometimes thinking before we speak would take too much time. And it can be hard work to think about what we hear and respond in an enlightening and helpful way.
So what helps us become better listeners:
- Meditation: putting ourselves before the Lord in quietness. There is nothing like putting myself and others under the word of the Lord to become a better listener. My interest and the interest of others are placed under the interest, direction and care of our God. When it is not about me, I become a better listener.
- Love: reaching out to another for their sake. Love cares. Caring is what allows people to speak, revealing more of what genuinely lives in their heart.
- Understanding: the greater our breadth of knowledge the more likely we will discern difference from our experience and worldview. What we hear is filtered through our understanding. What we know about depression helps us understand what we hear. The less we know the less we hear the changes and variations in the experience. This is true for other experiences as well.
- Questions: questions focus on what the other’s perceptions are. Questions help us discern the movements of what we hear. Rather than assuming knowledge, questions ensure that we are hearing correctly.
Listening and responding are essential parts of community life. We all know that “thinking before we speak” is important, even if hard. Some practices enable healthier listening and community building. May God deepen our life together through our ears.
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