Over the past week, several people have said things to me that I haven’t wanted to hear, or at least not in the way they said it. An unhappy child whose anger came out in accusations. A museum guard who barked orders rather than politely explaining. Social media appeals that sounded a lot like judgment. Just today, I was making the extra effort of hand sorting my recyclables rather than throwing them in the garbage, and a street department employee came running out to complain about the way I was tossing the glass jars in. “Don’t do it like that,” he said. I almost started crying.
The conversational tone in our culture right now seems declarative, insistent, indignant even. Online discussions that start out polite quickly disintegrate into name calling. But even in person, we speak monologues at each other instead of engaging in dialogue. We wait impatiently while other people talk so that we can add our own correct perspective.
Or maybe I should say, “I.”
I do this. I talk too much instead of listen. I bristle when others are shouting at me, and I fidget until I can speak. I am too quick to offer an opinion, and too willing to judge what others are saying.
Here’s the truth: I don’t have all the answers. I don’t always know how my step-sons are struggling. I might have broken the museum exhibit if I continued walking too closely. I need to care about the injustices other endure. And if do keep throwing the glass, someone’s going to get cut.
In other words, I need to listen better. Here are 5 reasons why:
1.) When I listen, I learn new things. Yesterday, I listened to an art museum docent explain the history of saints as they are portrayed in art. I knew some of what he said. I knew to look for the identifying attributes. I knew how many panels make up a triptych. I didn’t know, however, that the Michael is the only angel identified an an archangel in the Bible. I also didn’t know how very interesting religious art can be.
2.) When I listen, I gain a new perspective. Even as I was throwing the glass bottles into the recycling, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I guess they can’t keep the glass from breaking, I decided as I heard jar after jar breaking as they landed. When the street department employee told me to stop, I tried to defend myself. “I didn’t know how else to do it,” I said. “Just lay them in there,” he replied. “When you throw them, someone has to clean up what breaks.” I definitely wouldn’t want to be that person. I carefully laid the last few down.
3.) When I listen, I know how to serve others. Recently, I was with a friend whose husband has been ill for months. As I listened to all the burdens she is carrying, I realized one very specific way I could help. I offered, and she accepted. I was not aware of the need—nor was she—before that conversation.
4.) When I listen, I discover similarities. Over the weekend, I was struggling with a family situation that felt overwhelming and frustrating. I spent a lot of time talking to my husband about it. Eventually, I started listening. As it turns out, he has felt the same way. Before that, I thought I was the only one.
5.) When I listen, I hear the heartbeat of someone who’s different. The shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, have created a firestorm of online activity. There have been quick judgments and harsh reactions on multiple sides. I don’t know what, exactly, to think about it. I haven’t formed any strong opinions. But when I heard interviews with several parents who said they fear for their children’s lives, that they felt they needed to have “the talk” to explain how their children should act around the police or other officials in order to keep them safe, I knew one thing for sure. I have never thought of having a conversation like that with my step sons.
I talk a lot here about bringing words to life. Usually I am referring to words I speak or write. But another important way to bring words to life is to take a breath while others are speaking, to listen and let their words bring life to me. That’s what I’m learning today.