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Stop, Look and Listen!

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Stop, Look and Listen!

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Many years ago, my wife and I learned a valuable life-changing lesson while watching the Jane Austen-inspired film titled Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novel transports us to 19th century England, in which there was a notable gentility and respect towards others whose lives you entered by extending a gracious bow or curtsey and holding your peace until it was your turn to verbally engage. We were left with the thought of how different our world might be if people in a figurative sense bowed more and talked less and offered grace and dignity to those we encounter.

Since that initial viewing I’ve had decades to put this concept into practice, whether in marriage, the ministry, or eight years on the Council of Elders. Let’s face it—I’ve been in a target-rich environment at every turn. Have I succeeded yet? No, not at all! I’m still a work in motion. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words: “Not that I have already obtained, or am already perfected; but I press on” (Philippians 3:12). But it’s my desire to create an atmosphere that offers dignity and respect to each personal interaction.

All of us are in the same boat, and sometimes our entrances and exits into lives of others are rocky due to our lapses towards practicing the simple and yet profound admonition discovered in James 1:19, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” As Christians, each of us desire to be individuals that tear down proverbial walls and build bridges of understanding that enhance relationships—but how often do we put foot in mouth because we simply haven’t put our heart in our ears and kept it there? The reality is that most of us are communication-impaired from lack of education, training and, sometimes unfortunately, raw human nature. The coarseness of talking over one another, getting the last word in or ignoring the individual altogether has dramatically multiplied in our culture and cannot help but impact our interpersonal skills as Christians.

How then do we learn to “bow more and talk less”? Oh yes, please don’t misunderstand: We need to speak our piece. But when, where and how? To help figure it out, let’s focus on some basic instructions our parents gave us when learning to cross a street. These loving safe guards are relatable to avoiding personal injury to others and us when it comes to communication. Remember being taught: “Stop, look, and listen. Then look the other way one more time, and then cross.” Let’s apply these safeguards one at a time to enhance our abilities to responsibly and lovingly communicate with others.

1) Stop!

If we’re going to treat others with dignity we begin by understanding that everyone is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and that alone demands our personal care and attention towards all whose paths we cross—family, friend, neighbor, coworker or fellow Church member. Beyond this, Christ told us we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Matthew 22:39). Which of us does not desire to be heard word-by-word and to have someone to listen to what we are saying? Seneca, the first century Roman philosopher, put it this way: “Listen to me for a day—an hour!—a moment. Lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence! O God, is there no one to listen.” If we’re thoroughly honest, the closer the relationship to us, the more we need to consider these steps, because familiarity can breed bad manners.

To actively listen to another person requires willpower, concentration and strong mental effort underpinned by respect and love. 

But let’s ask ourselves an important question. Let’s say our heart is right. But why then do we keep having accidents in communication? There’s something we need to understand about how our minds work. It’s been determined most people exhibit about a 25 percent effective listening score. To be blunt that means we’re listening with less than half of one ear. Here’s our anatomical reality: We can externally receive about 125 words per minute from another person. But that back room of our brain can be processing words at a lightning pace. The reality is that our buzzing brain that’s simultaneously thinking its own thoughts immensely overwhelms our external intake. To slow our brain down is not natural. In fact it can be almost painful.

But that’s where mind over matter and God’s Spirit over human nature come into play. Hearing and listening are two different creatures altogether. Listening is not a passive activity! It just doesn’t happen on its own. To actively listen to another person requires willpower, concentration and strong mental effort underpinned by respect and love. Yes, we have to stop and give the right of way to others!

Consider the positive alternatives of avoiding communication errors such as no longer misinterpreting ideas, misreading people’s intentions, getting instructions wrong, and the list could go on. Challenging? Yes! Hard? Absolutely! But not to do so devalues others by our expressed lack of interest. God’s instruction and desire for us is just the opposite as expressed by the apostle Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). As the old saying goes, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Maybe so we could bow more and talk less.

2) Look! 

Put everything down (everything!), look the person in the eye, and give them your all, because that is what’s required to show respect, love and genuine concern. 

So often we limit effective communication to what we say, but it’s noteworthy what Solomon said: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made them both’’ (Proverbs 20:12). God gave us two incredible sets of tools to build bridges of relationship to others. Can you imagine fighting a battle with one hand tied behind your back? Well that’s what occurs when we simply use our ears, but not our eyes, to drink in of someone’s expression to us.

If you don’t think so, just go into a restaurant, cover your ears, look around for a few minutes and just take it all in with your eyes. What you perceive may not come across audibly alone. It may be the shrugging of shoulders, a sly smile, someone looking away and yawning, or someone rapidly turning their head in a certain direction. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” and if you are only using your ears and not your eyes, then you’re missing a large part of the play.

Stephen Covey, in his well known book titled Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, enlightens us by explaining, “Empathetic listening involves much more than registering, reflection, or even understanding the words that are said. Communication experts estimate, in fact, that only ten percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another thirty percent is represented by our sound, and sixty percent by our body language. In empathetic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. Your listen for behavior.”

We live in age of technological distractions, and many people tout their ability to multitask. One thing never to do is multitask when someone is talking with you. Put everything down (everything!), look the person in the eye, and give them your all, because that is what’s required to show respect, love and genuine concern. To do otherwise sends off immediate signals that you are too busy to care, you’re bored to death, or you just don’t consider what’s being said as important.

I always freeze-frame in my mind and heart a certain episode in which the apostles Peter and John encounter the man at the Gate Beautiful. This man had been placed on the ignore button most of his life until two men who respected God and their fellow man showed genuine love towards this individual, as Scripture describes: “And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, ‘Look at us.’ So he gave them his attention . . . ” Yes, eyeball to eyeball and heart to heart—as Peter would continue, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (Acts 3:4-6). Think about it—how many wonderful and meaningful connections have we missed with people, because we didn’t stop everything, give them our full attention with listening ears and Peter-like eyes “fixed” on them? Well, the past is past, but we can start now. First, there is still one more important step.

3) Listen!

Remember Seneca’s lament: “Listen to me for an hour—a day—a moment?”

Forget the hour or day—some of us, no, all of us, have at times not even been able to give a “moment” of thoughtful listening before sharing our “ifs, ands, and buts” that have not been requested or at best are premature in sharing. Just think of Job’s so-called friends, and then think again.

Scripture tells us in Proverbs 18:13, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is a folly and shame to him.” Consider why this is so important in weighing once again the thoughts of Steven Covey from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communications. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival—to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated. When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air.”

Yes, silence can be truly golden to serve others. It truly can be a breath of fresh air, because at times it’s so rare. Proverbs 15:4 tells us that a wholesome tongue is a tree of life. But it doesn’t just happen. To put it in very graphic sense: We have to push our tongue back, move our ears forward, and use our hearts as a doorstop—so we don’t get in the way. I’m still learning to bow more and talk less to my fellow man, and I hope you will join me as we learn to stop, look and listen.