I have been in a number of situations recently in which it was clear the other person was not listening, or at least not hearing me. An example: after being away from home for a few days I was asked how I was doing. I responded, "I’m doing well. However, I am an introvert and because of that I think it takes me longer to form the deep and fulfilling relationships that maybe others form quickly. As a result, after five days of being away from home, I'm feeling a bit lonely for those people with whom I do have those deeper connections." His response, "Oh, yeah, My wife is an introvert too, so I'm sure you must be wanting your alone time." Huh?
Another example: I was looking at a map in order to find a place to hike. A man was showing me a path by tracing his finger along a road and describing it as a hiking path, "The hiking trail you are talking about; does it run parallel to the road, or is it the road itself? Is it an actual walking path you are describing, or is it the road itself?" His response, "No, if you walk on the road, you could get hit by a car." "So there is a walking path near the road?" "No. It's a lovely walk. Just follow the road." "So it is the road?" "If you walk on the road, you'll get hit by a car." What?
I wish I could say these are isolated events, but actually they aren't for me. I run into this problem of being mis-heard, mis-understood, or having my words responded to in a way that shows they were taken to mean something other than what I meant to communicate on a fairly regular basis. This happens often enough that I have found myself wondering lately if it is ME that is the issue. Do I communicate in a way that is less than clear? Am I somehow communicating things other than what I am saying in ways I'm not even aware of?
When I ask my friends, or those who read my blog, or those who listen to my sermons if this is the case, they all assure me it isn't. But even if the fault is at least partly mine (and I'm sure I need to claim some fault here), I also observe that as a people, as a country, we are having a harder and harder time actually LISTENING to one another. We impose on the speaker our own world views, our own agendas, our own expectations of what we think they will say or mean. We transfer onto the speaker our own worries, thoughts and cares. We don't listen.
Of course there are exceptions. We can learn how to listen with more honesty and truth. We can learn how to listen without spending that hearing time trying to think of how we will respond when the other person is done talking. We can ask questions that try to clarify what we are hearing to be sure we are truly understanding the other. We can try to stop thinking about how what they are saying relates to ourselves, and instead listen to it for the other person's sake. We can learn this. Circles that focus on spiritual direction, counseling, emotional and spiritual care all focus on this intentional and deep listening to the other. But we seem to have lost this skill in normal, every day living. And the result is a country torn apart by misunderstandings, by an inability to hear, love, have compassion for and insight into beautifully human and wondrous beings that "others" are. It is a problem of epidemic proportions. One which I believe can only be answered first and foremost by a commitment to listening, deeply, and truly, without agenda or ego to one another.
In the mean time, I am striving hard to remember that every response another person gives to words I have spoken reflects much more on that other person than it does on me anyway. Our responses are about ourselves. Therefore when someone does respond to something I've said, it is an opportunity for ME to practice listening as well, regardless of what it was I was trying to communicate. That's not always easy: if I'm saying something, it usually means I'm wanting it to be heard. But sometimes the lack of understanding on their part is an invitation, an opportunity, a plea for me to hear them. So I will start by listening. And perhaps, once they have felt heard, there will be more space for them to hear me as well.