My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1:19, NIV
Over the last few years, a word has been circulating in our society: “woke.” “Being woke” became widespread after the 2014 deaths of several unarmed African-American men and women who were killed by police officers. Important details began to emerge about our criminal justice system, specifically the mass incarceration of people of color.
To be “woke” is to be critically conscious of the systemic institutional practices that promote and perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination. In short, it’s about an awareness of issues of social and racial justice. I am appreciative of this movement and the people who work hard to bring about true justice to our world. It’s important to be woke and to move out into the world with a heightened social awareness, because that awareness informs your important judgments and decisions.
For the purpose of this chapter, I want to discuss being woke or critically conscious of our relational practices, specifically the practice of listening and the manner in which we dialogue with each other. The topics in this book, particularly the last few chapters, can prompt important conversations. The way we have these conversations will play a huge role in the progress we make.
A major cause of human problems is how people behave when we strongly disagree. When emotions and stakes run high, people often revert to an unhealthy type of conversation. Most of us have not learned healthy ways to disagree.
In Chapter 35, there’s a discussion on how to resolve conflicts through negotiation or “clean fighting.” Its goal was to teach us how to stop unhealthy behaviors like silent treatment, sarcasm, passive aggressiveness, hitting, etc. While learning how to negotiate is important, we also need to learn how to listen better—not for the purpose of responding, but so we can truly understand a message someone is communicating.
Listening at the heart level—without making judgment or assumptions—is a mark of maturity and a vital step in building communities that can heal the wounds of the past and bring about true reconciliation. We need to hear the stories of those who share a different perspective. We need to practice incarnational listening—listening from the heart and trying to become fully immersed in the perspective of the speaker.
The goal of effective incarnational listening is not agreement or winning a competition. It is understanding without making judgments or assumptions about the person. Another way to look at incarnational listening is that it’s like playing charades, not playing chess. Chess is about the next move. Charades is getting attuned to what someone is saying and the heart behind their message.
I'm under no illusion that this practice is easy. To some, it might even sound ridiculous, but I believe this is one of the most important lessons in this guide. In our society, we suffer from an inability to love, and one of the best ways to show love is to listen. Until you sit down and hear someone's story, you are not qualified to judge their situation.
Most people, myself included, come from families where we were never truly listened to, nor were we taught how to listen at the heart level. I know that when I wasn’t listened to, I felt unloved, unwanted, and dismissed. This kept me from wanting to be close or share anything with others, because I knew that what I conveyed would not be valued.
In families, friendships, marriages, and communities in general, if people aren’t being heard, they are developing an emotional guardedness that breeds a dysfunctional and even toxic environment. Poor listening breaks up marriages, churches, businesses, and friendships. I heard one marriage counselor say that when a married couple stops listening to one another, they will have to listen to the therapist—and if that doesn’t work, they will have to listen to the divorce lawyer, or ultimately to the judge who helps divide their assets. This was a sobering picture of the importance of listening.
When we don’t discuss serious topics, they become “the elephants in the room.” Elephants grow as they feed on avoidance. If we are to move forward as a community, and even as a family, we need to have these conversations and work hard to listen and understand one another. Can listening really make a difference? Let me assure you, it absolutely does. I believe that by learning to listen to each other and validate each other’s experiences, we can turn our communities around.
Listening helps us develop empathy and compassion for one another, which changes our perceptions and the decisions we make based on those perceptions. Finding a way to discuss our differences will determine our future as a people, because true listening creates the environment that breeds change. We might never achieve agreement across the board, but we can find a greater sense of compassion and reduced sense of superiority. “I am right, and you are wrong” conversations don’t lead to unity. Instead, they breed shame, hatred, and increased division.
I've participated in several support groups over the years where we were asked, at the first meeting, to write down our fears about being in the group. About 80 percent of the people in every group said they feared being judged. No one wants to be judged. No one wants to have their deepest beliefs, thoughts, vulnerabilities, and pain dismissed.
With complex topics, it’s harder to feel safe enough to say how we feel. But when the necessary tools are available, the group can start down the road to healing and reconciliation. I know that healing as a community will require many uncomfortable conversations.
What causes this discomfort? Our beliefs are not always rooted in logic. Sometimes, they are rooted in deep emotional pain. We need safe places where we can explore, question, critique, listen, and be heard, where everyone has a willingness to learn and not a desire to accuse.
It's easy to get lost in the theoretical, so let’s use a practical tool to evaluate how we behave when it comes to having critical conversations. Let’s figure out how to create a space where hearts and minds are changed through expanded understanding. We must learn how to create safety before we speak the truth. We can deal more effectively with the content of an important conversation when we’ve acknowledged and processed the related emotions, which takes time and patience. It might even require a new level of strength and maturity.
Exercise – Listening Test: What are the ways you interact in conversation? [i]
It’s important to remain civility when talking about race, class, sexuality, gender equality, and religion. This last election cycle demonstrated how poorly we handle disagreements. Some conversations require emotional maturity, and not everyone involved in the conversation is at the same level of maturity. If you find you are unable to stay civil, take a step back to process your strong emotions so you can re-enter the conversation without being easily triggered. I say this as a man who is passionate and often says something unwise in conversations about controversial topics. I share this not because I get it right, but because I get it wrong and need to hold myself accountable.
Lack of civility breeds defensiveness and creates an environment that feels unsafe. This kills the hope for unity and reconciliation. When people don't feel safe, the conversation loses its genuineness and ultimately, its ability to affect change in a positive way. It’s hard to change the way you speak to and listen to others, particularly if you've grown accustomed to having conversations that are contentious. We have to humbly ask ourselves: Has the way we’ve done things been effective in building strong communities, where people can have disagreements without being disagreeable?
Our goal is a community that fosters love, healing, safety, and truth through listening, which is the currency of community. It’s impossible to incarnationally listen to someone without being changed. Listening is the most important part of a crucial dialogue. We have to always remember our purpose as we engage in conversations. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The goal of this exercise is to help you evaluate your maturity level.
Directions: Circle all the statements you can affirm.
1) My close friends would describe me as a responsive listener.
2) When people are upset with me, I am able to listen to them without being defensive.
3) I listen not only to the words people say but also to the feelings behind their words.
4) I have little interest in judging other people or quickly giving my opinion to them.
5) I am able to validate another person’s feelings with empathy.
6) I am aware of my defensive tactics in stressful conversations (e.g. appeasing, ignoring, blaming, distracting).
7) I understand how the family I was raised in has shaped my present listening style.
8) I ask for clarification when listening rather than “filling in the blanks” with assumptions.
9) I don’t interrupt to get my point across when another is speaking.
10) I give people my undivided attention when they are talking to me.
11) I don’t overemphasize facts to promote my agenda.
12) I don’t change the subject to avoid acknowledging my ignorance or my wrong information.
13) I acknowledge when I don’t have enough information and need to research and reflect to have an informed answer.
14) I invite dialogue instead of debate. Dialogue encourages a free flow of information, while debate is about defending your position, with no desire to consider if the other side’s perspective has some value. The desire to win drives us away from healthy dialogue because we point out flaws in the other person's argument instead of looking for value.
If you circled ten to fourteen statements, you are an outstanding listener. If you circled six to nine, you are very good; and four to five, good. If you circled three or fewer statements, you are a poor listener and might be in trouble trying to work things out through discussion.
If you want to be really brave, after you score yourself, ask your spouse or someone close to you to honestly rate you as a listener. Be grateful for the insight you receive from this exercise, and if necessary, decide to improve your listening skills.
[i]Scazzero, Peter, “Great Leaders Are Great Listeners,” Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, 28 May 2017, http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/great-leaders-great-listeners/