My wife, Jenny, is a lay preacher; so we frequently visit churches where the local congregation haven’t ever met us before. Don’t run for cover. This is not a religious diatribe. The point is that experience has taught me that, unless I make the effort to engage with the locals, I’m going to be ignored.
You know, the more you think about it, the more you realise that our failure to relate to one another often arises because we have no idea how to initiate conversation with people we don’t know; and we’re equally poor when it comes to effective listening. Failure to listen effectively can lead to any of the following, and the list is by no means exhaustive.
Failure to understand what is being shared with us.
Failure to understand the motivation of the people around us.
Failure to appreciate how others are feeling.
Resentment resulting from such insensitivity.
Unnecessary, totally avoidable conflict arising from the above.
I first became aware of this when I was a teenager. The earth was still cooling back then; but I remember my father saying to me that being good at holding a conversation was all about being good at listening. It seemed like good advice; yet it left me with all sorts of unanswered questions. What should you be listening out for? How do you know when you’ve heard it? When you recognize what you heard, what’s your next move? Simply knowing that you ought to be a better listener isn’t all that helpful is it? I think that applies to most of us. We’re not bad listeners because we don’t see the value of effective listening. We just don’t know how it’s done. Like the people who ignore me in church, we simply don’t know how to engage meaningfully; so when it comes to dealing with strangers we fall back on one of two strategies. The first is to avoid speaking at all. The second is to ask them if they’re alright. In the UK, this is rapidly replacing reference to the weather as a conversation opener. You can use this opener when there’s no reason to think the person is not alright. You can ask it when they’re lying face down in the gutter and very clearly not alright; But it’s not a great way to begin a conversation is it?
It’s perfectly possible to engage complete strangers in conversation on subjects you know nothing about, if you know how. It’s possible to disagree, sometimes strongly disagree, and remain friends with people, if you know how. It’s possible to hear, not only what people are telling you, but what’s behind what they’re telling you; as well as how they’re feeling about it, if you know how. There’s a song I’m sure you know that includes the words, knowing me, knowing you. That’s what it’s all about.