Coomb — Speaking on Listening

Posted 8/1/18

Family Works                  [August 26, 2018]

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Coomb — Speaking on Listening


Family Works                  [August 26, 2018]

Speaking on Listening

Four women, playing bridge in the recreation room of a retirement center in Tennessee, were chatting more than paying attention to their game, when they noticed an older gentleman wander into the room. None of them had seen him before. He was obviously a newcomer. Quickly, the four ladies perked up. One said, “Well, hello there. You're new here, aren't you?” The old man smiled and responded, “Just moved in this morning.” A second lady spoke, “Well, where did you come from? Where did you live before?” Matter-of-factly came the reply: “San Quentin. I was just released from there. I've been there for 30 years.” “Oh, is that right?” said the third lady. “What were you in for?” Without even hesitating a moment, the old man answered, “I murdered my wife.” The fourth lady sat up in her chair. Her eyes sparkled and she gave him a big smile as she said, “Oh, then that means you're single.”

Amazing, isn't it? More often than not, we hear what we want to hear and what we hear is often colored by our preoccupations and our perceptions. Since we all have different preoccupations and perceptions, it’s easy to understand why we hear things so differently. No wonder good communication is so hard. 

Good communicators usually are not the best talkers. Rather, they are great listeners. They have learned the biblicalmwisdom of being “quick to listen, and slow to speak.” Does this mean that listening is more important than speaking? My mother certainly believed it was. As a child she taught me the reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth was so we would listen twice as often as we talked. Unfortunately, most of us talk much more than we listen. 

Despite all the emphasis placed on communication today, listening does not happen between individuals nearly often enough. Our technology has provided us with a means to listen to the depths of oceans, listen to distant planets, listen for the first signals from spacecraft on the planet Mars, listen to a baby in the womb, listen to plants, listen to brain waves.

But, we seldom listen to each other.

Ironically, we want people to listen very attentively to us; maybe even listen for the deeper, unspoken meanings and yearnings we find difficult to express. And yet, we are often unwilling to listen in return.

Much of my work involves listening. Have you ever tried to listen to someone for one hour without thinking about anything else, including how you feel about what you are hearing or how you might respond to what you are hearing? Listening is hard work!  Listening intently and exclusively to the one speaking is complicated by the fact that we think at a rate of about 600 words per minute and speak at a rate of 125 words per minute. In case you are not into math, that’s a difference of 475 words per minute. We easily trick ourselves into believing that we can listen to the person speaking to us at a rate of 125 words per minute and have plenty of time left over (475 words per minute) to think about other things. We might use those "extra" word thoughts to make judgements about what is being said, or to decide how we might respond, or maybe even think about what we might want for lunch, or when we might finally complete that unfinished project. Within moments, we are hardly listening at all.

Try, some time, to listen to someone without distraction. If you are up to this difficult challenge, you might do a world of good for someone who needs your listening ears.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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