Learning To Listen

by Gregg Brekke

Listening has consequences.

A number of years ago, I was teaching in Micronesia. One day, Noah, the principal of our high school, called me into his office and talked to me for 15 minutes about my classes and students. The next day was Friday, and after school the staff and students were having a cookout at the beach. When I arrived at the party, my stomach sank. I saw other staff arriving at the beach with pickups full of students. But my pickup was empty. The back of my pickup was like a wide open mouth saying, “Here’s a selfish person.” It felt 100 times worse than sneaking into carpool lanes.

It wasn’t until about a year later that I figured out how I’d made that mistake. In a high-context culture like where I was living, no one asks you directly if you would help them because if you say no, the relationship is spoiled. So the courteous thing to do is make small talk for about 10 minutes and only hint indirectly that you are asking a favor. Being a straight-talking American, I had completely missed the principal’s oblique request for me to pick up students.

I think about that experience sometimes, usually after I have made another listening mistake. Upon reflection, I have to admit that there is much I still need to learn, or unlearn concerning the way I listen.

Is it the case that the only reason I listen is because I know my turn to talk is next? This is called initial listening. It occurs in the first couple of seconds or minutes of a conversation, until I start to think about what to say, and where to interrupt.

For instance, I told a good friend of mine, sincerely, that the reason his son had cancer is so that my friend could gain the kind of humility needed to minister better. Aaagh. Quick and empty words to say to a father who was grieving deeply. Who am I that I should pretend to know the deep purposes of God in my friend’s life, in the scope of all eternity? There was absolutely no comfort from God in my words. I would have been a much better comforter by saying nothing–for one week at least. After that time of listening to God in prayer, I might have given a better answer, like assuring my friend that God loves his son.

Unfortunately, another technique I sometimes use is called false listening. This happens, of course, when I am not really listening.

Like most men, I drive around lost and only ask for directions when the complaint level in the car reaches about 90 decibels or lasts for longer than about 15 minutes. The entire time, I nod and say, “Yes, yes, I know. I’m listening…”

But now, I’m carefully trying to hide some information from my family.  It turns out that false listening has some costs associated with it.

According to the insurers Sheilas’ Wheels, “Men who don’t ask for directions waste $3,000…The study finds that the average male driver drives 276 miles lost every year. That’s a big carbon footprint for time badly spent!”

After years of getting lost in Spokane, I was finally convinced by my family last summer that it would be good to have a GPS for “bigger cities.”  Los Angeles doesn’t have freeways.  I discovered that L.A. has huge parking lots, which the locals call freeways.  And I also discovered that my wife wanted the voice on the GPS to be a female.  Counting my daughter, there were now three female voices in the car giving me directions.  And a three-to-one ratio still wasn’t enough to make me listen sometimes. It is no wonder that BMW had problems with its male drivers.  Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford reports that “… BMW did in fact put a female voice in their GPS, and they actually had to have a product recall because German drivers would not take directions from a woman.”

This kind of “hard-of-hearing” is not a new development. It is also called selective listening.  Selective listening happens when we are not interested in the tone, topic, or implications of a conversation or message. We filter out information that comes from voices that we have trouble hearing, due to our pride and prejudices.

I have since realized that in the Gospel of Mark, coincidently, the first witnesses to the resurrection were three women. Angels sent them to the disciples to report the best news ever in the history of the world. And the disciples did not listen. Later, Jesus personally rebuked them. Selective listening narrows our understanding of God’s sovereignty and limits the places and people from which we expect to hear truth.

In the beginning, God spoke; and ever since the sixth day, the Lord has been trying to get a word in edgewise. God continually designs listening opportunities that challenge our prideful sense of self and the world. It seems that the more proud someone is, and the more hard-of-hearing, the more God speaks unexpectedly in society and nature. God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

Take, for instance, God’s witness through children. The boy Samuel was used by God to rebuke Eli. And the first contestants on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? were some Pharisees. They were not smarter than the children shouting praises to Jesus in the temple. In fact, the praises of the children irked the Pharisees.

Or consider God’s witness through a donkey, who rebuked the angry Balaam for his spiritual blindness and greed.

In God’s sovereignty, even the rocks cry out. In my house there is a small stone plaque which I should listen to more carefully: It says “Lord, keep your arm around my shoulder, and your hand over my mouth.”

Jonah and Peter also had false listening and selective hearing problems. Both said “No” to the Lord’s voice. They were called to God’s work, but refused to listen. Nevertheless, God, the Lord of the entire universe, kept speaking to them:  To Jonah, God spoke through pagan sailors, and a fish, and a worm, a plant, and the repentant voices of the Ninevites; to Peter, God spoke through a rooster, and three dreams of unclean animals, and through three gentiles knocking at his door, and through a whole houseful of gentiles who praised God.

Could it be that listening is dangerous? The call to share God’s grace was indeed quite risky. To go into the hornets’ nest of the Assyrian society or into the homes of unclean Gentiles presented a physical risk, a theological risk, and a societal risk. Sometimes, like Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, our reaction to God’s voice is to take up the sword, and cut off the ear of the very person to whom God is trying to speak. Our shallow and ironic excuse is that we are protecting God. Of course, the sword approach is shortsighted and denies the existence of God’s sovereignty and grace. The reality is that often God has already spoken to people we think are beyond reach or interest. And sometimes they are listening better, too.

In contrast, I want to practice deep listening, also known as whole person listening. This listening generously seeks to understand the whole person behind the words. It is grace-filled listening. I think of Barnabas as a good listener. When Paul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took Paul and brought him to the apostles. When the original disciples would not trust Paul, Barnabas listened generously, and included Paul in the community.

Generous listening is risky because at times it requires change, repentance, and apologies. Grace-filled listening sometimes requires us to travel a different road with different people. Whole-person listening ultimately requires our participation in God’s work, our involvement in the lives of those who speak to us. Hopefully, I can practice this style of listening, and when people say to me, “Can I share something with you,” I will be open to hear what I might not want to hear, for the sake of God’s work in their lives, and in mine. I think Paul Tillich was right when he said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

Gregg Brekke taught English at Berea Christian School in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. His interests include intercultural communication, dialect profiling, and U.S. language policy. Gregg serves as an assistant professor of TESOL and Linguistics in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, Whitworth University.

Image above is from here.

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