“The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.” ― Roy T. Bennett
(Quoted from Sidewalk Talk Monthly Newsletter, Nov. 2018)
I am wondering where this ‘listen to reply’ comes from, to understand its roots, since it seems so widespread and such a roadblock to really understanding another person, or even oneself.
Ours is an Age of Transition
I think it is likely the root cause lies in our history. I buy the idea that the context for life in the western world is in transition from an industrial, colonial, white, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal, ‘christian’ age, characterised by hierarchy, entitlement and a mechanistic mindset (what I am calling the Telling paradigm), to an emerging post-industrial, pluralist, more egalitarian period that requires understanding each other to make sense of it, and ultimately to survive (a Listening paradigm).
The Telling mindset seems to relegate listening to understanding information that the Teller is empowered and entitled to tell, often rewarding or punishing for obeisance in order to maintain power. Husbands telling wives, churches telling congregations, bosses telling employees. But higher education is beginning to call hierarchical power into question; and with it, the Telling paradigm.
As a former school teacher, the word ‘control’ was used unapologetically in my teacher training during the 1960’s as the key objective for classroom management. ‘Keep control in the classroom!’ I can vouch for the counter-productivity of this fear-based, coercive approach, having tried it out in my first years of teaching. It took a huge emotional toll on me. I came to the conclusion that what looks like an ordered classroom created by Telling is often one that turns violent when the external pressure comes off. Any wonder, given it is likely students mirror the same autocratic Telling behaviour of their teacher, and quite often their parents. Discipline has been applied externally, stunting the growth of students to acquire the self-discipline needed for social responsibility.
In those days, a teacher in a classroom, could continue to tell, demanding to be listened to. The carrot was a good report at the end of the term, the stick was the threat of punitive consequences for lack of respect of the teacher’s authority. Telling was, and probably still is, justified by tellers to maintain ego. In those days, the Telling teacher was provided with little alternative. The Teller’s default behaviour was the way the teller had been taught. That meant trying to keep everything ‘normal’, the way it had always been – or even, the way it was ‘meant’ to be!
The end of Telling
Walter Brueggemann heralded the transition out of Telling within the realm of theology with ground-breaking books like The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and Then Comes the Poet. In an exploration of modernity and post-modernity, his book, The Bible and Postmodern Imagination – texts under negotiation, (SCM 1993, Augsburg Fortress), Brueggemann sums up his understanding of the transition (p.10,11):
The large, experienced reality faced daily by those with whom we minister is the collapse of the white, male, Western world of colonialism. While that world will continue to make its claim for a very long time, its unchallenged authority and credibility are over and done with. This new reality touches each of us in threatening and frightening ways. It touches the economy and reaches right down into our patterns of employment and retirement. It touches home and domestic authority in families. And as our systems of management and control break down, the collapse makes us at least anxious and perhaps greedy, and in the end it leads to a justification of many kinds of brutality. The experience of this collapse is profound, intense, and quite concrete. There is a lot of political mileage in rhetoric that pretends the old system works, but it is deception. Thus the end of modernity, I propose, is not some remote, intellectual fantasy, but reaches down into the lives of folk like us.
Resistance to finding alternatives to ‘telling’ is evident in all kinds of human abuse – widespread bullying in the corporate world and at home, all kind of sexual and emotional abuse of minors, racial conflict and the rise of hardline fascist, nationalist and religious movements – the ‘tellers’ that want to exert their authoritarian, self-interested power over others, even if clothed in respectability, at seemingly any cost.
At the heart of a transition from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’ is the disempowerment of ‘bosses’. Tellers are obviously not happy about losing their elitist or entitled privileges! That is why Frederic Laloux‘s exposure about the brokenness of past organisational systems and the rise of organisations without ‘bosses’ is so pertinent. Like Brueggemann, Laloux is a herald – his research points to what is already happening!
But don’t expect the Colonial, Industrial, White, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal, ‘christian’ hegemony, in which we are immersed, to fall over without a fight! If there is Listening, it is often for the purpose of telling! That is what is behind the quotation from Bennett: ‘we listen to reply’.’
Telling’ is self-aggrandisement. It massages a sense of superiority. It gives a sense of power and feeds the ego.
The ‘Listening’ Herald
The ‘listening’ that I am talking about puts on hold ones own agenda, for the sake of understanding the world of the other. That is, to serve a wider purpose. The well-loved catholic pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen, proposed a radical approach to achieving the kind of listening for understanding that Bennett is after, one that has no place for ‘reply’. Furthermore, Nouwen’s conception disempowers any ‘telling’, creating a freedom for others to take control and be responsible for their own lives and to make their own connections. It empowers the other. That is why Nouwen’s conception of hospitality is so crucial for those like me who are jumping out of the grave of the Age of Telling to a new life in the Age of Listening.
An Age of Listening demands a new, but radical, hospitality
* Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.
* Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
* It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
* It is not to lead our neighbour into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment.
* It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.
* It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opportunity to others to find their God and their way.
* The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.
* Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt a life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find their own.
Henri Nouwen. Reaching Out: The Three Movements in the Spiritual Life. (1975 Doubleday. New York) (p 68)
But it is not easy to unlearn ‘telling’ – particularly for a former Evangelical Christian who was also a teacher!