Learning to listen
A few months ago, my wife and I were sitting on the floor, surrounded by a mound of toys, playing with our 2-year-old nephew. We loved listening to his infectious laugh, marveled at his well-developed vocabulary, and were gradually exhausted as he ran circles around us.
As we played, I noticed something that’s probably not unique to this one toddler. When we talked to him about John Deere tractors or Paw Patrol or farm animals… he was all ears. But when we talked with him about things he wasn’t so interested in—like cleaning up his pile of green tractors or getting ready for bath time—suddenly he was less engaged.
He would do one of two things. Either he wouldn’t even acknowledge what we said… as though he stopped listening completely until a topic came along that was more interesting to him. Or, he’d make more noise. Talking over us. Thinking if he was louder than the other voices, then bedtime just wouldn’t happen.
I’m well aware this is pretty typical behavior for a young child. Much of their early development is cultivating language and conversational skills—and along with that the ability to listen. But in that moment, I couldn’t help thinking that Joey’s listening skills weren’t far off from those of many adults at times (myself included).
Every person likes to think of themselves as a good listener. No one wants to be characterized as self-interested or oblivious to the needs or concerns of others. But, like Joey, so often we choose to ignore or talk over the very voices we most need to listen to. Especially those who are different than us.
If you take a quick glance through scripture, it should be no surprise that Jesus was an expert listener. Sitting beside the woman at the well, different than him in every way possible, his instinct was to move closer, ask questions, learn more. Jesus was often asking the disciples, “What do you think?” or “Who do you say that I am?” or inquiring about their perspective before sharing his own.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the weeks of world-wide protests that have now followed, one thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I simply have to become a better listener. As a white American, I have to listen to the anguish and struggle of my black sisters and brothers, even if it would be easier to use my privilege to ignore it altogether.
As a person of faith, I need to follow Christ’s example in continuing to try to understand perspectives and experiences that are quite different than my own. Or when I’m tempted to talk over others, because what I’m hearing challenges or overwhelms me, maybe one of the best things I can do is lean in to listen closer to those whose voices too often go unheard.
I’m confident we all can learn to be better listeners than a two-year-old. We can be quick to listen and slow to speak. We can actually want to hear other perspectives that challenge our own understandings. And, in the process, we’ll discover a much richer world around us.