More Let Me Tell You a Story – The “L” Word

It is so common, practically invariable, that we don’t notice it any more.  I saw it again recently, and I have to fight it in myself.  It is something that robs our faith-sharing of its power, something we’ve become so accustomed to that we don’t think of it as an issue.  In fact we don’t think of it at all.  Yet, this is a kind of sin that costs us dearly, and until we repent of it, turn from it, and learn a new way to behave, our outreach/inreach will most certainly suffer.

And what is that sin?  It is the “L” word. Our failure to listen.

I remember about forty years ago, when I was very young and O so wet behind the ears, I had my first awareness of my own “L” word problem, my failure to listen.  I was on a trip to Los Angeles, and was somewhere in Westwood, where a number of us had gone to share our faith. (In those days such excursions were common). I had some guy pinned up against a wall, and was spouting holy truths in his face at a closer proximity and greater velocity that was seemly, although I was unaware of it at that time.  Just at that moment, an older friend came up behind me, tapped me on the back, said “Excuse me,” whereupon I stepped aside, and he took my place and did something that I, in my Great Zeal For All Things Holy had failed to do: he asked the other guy his name, whereupon they actually had a human conversation.

Now I know that this is an extreme case. but the disease has spread over the years and I see it everywhere in different permutations. Here are some of the symptoms:

  1. Religious zealotry
  2. A belief that one not only has The Truth but is also in possession of a highly effective Formula for explaining and defending that truth to just about anyone with whom one shares a common language
  3. Often, an ability to look like one is listening when one is merely waiting for his or her turn again to speak. Such people will nod their heads, say “Uh-huh” and “How interesting,” and “Tell me more,” as they have been trained or trained themselves to do, but they are not deeply listening, because they are on a Mission from God of telling The Truth to the less enlightened, using well learned and sometimes highly developed approaches, outlines and formulas. Such people might well define “listening” as “What I do while waiting for my turn to speak again.”
  4. An anxiety for the other person to finish and to agree to follow one’s lead as one takes that person through the outline, the list of texts, or the set of spiritual laws or principles one has memorized or come prepared to share.

What is missing here is ANY authentic listening. Listening is no mere technique, and when it is a technique it is not listening, We must go beyond mastering a group of “listening techniques’ developed in a book or seminar.  Instead, we must learn to be vulnerably and truly present to the other with whom we reciprocally disclose something true and personal about ourselves/themselves in the context of a true conversation.

In The Story Factor, Annette Simmons tells us something about this which we really need to listen to:

Genuine listening has a deep, transformative power. Try to remember a time when someone truly listened to you and you will probably also remember experiencing your mental defenses slowly cracking open and falling away. The safety of being listened to probably enabled you to engage in an authentic expression of both what you did and did not understand about your situation and your own thoughts and behaviors. Gentuine listening give you permission to wonder aloud about your uncertainties.

And isn’t that just the kind of conversation we want to have with people whom we seek to engage in discussing spirituality?  After all, isn’t’ spirituality and relationship with God a highly personal matter?  This is not something one discusses, discloses, or buys into during an encounter with some religious salesman, saleswoman or huckster.

Yet how many of us have learned to turn our “witnessing encounters” into a some sort of sales meeting? Some of us have learned even to refer to the other person as a “contact,” a term borrowed directly from marketing.

About 45 years ago, to placate a soft-spoken and persistent representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses I went to one of their meetings, something called a “circuit assembly.”  It was held in a theater of some sort in Brooklyn, New York.  When I took my seat, a group of Witnesses were on the stage (that’s what it was, a stage) engaged in a mock home meeting, demonstrating how such meetings ought to be conducted. This was indeed a sales meeting.  They could have been selling vacuum cleaners or laundry detergents, rather than a ticket to “Jehovah’s Theocratic Kingdom.”

I imagine that all or nearly all of us consider ourselves to be far from Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group from whose theology and approach we feel obliged to distance ourselves. But we are not very far at all when we study learned pitches,  and prefabricated presentations, and make sure we don’t get too caught up in listening to the other person while on our holy mission.

We’ve got it all wrong. As Annette Simmons says again, “If you want to genuinely influence someone you must create a place safe enough for them to admit to their true feelings. Many influence strategies only succeed in encouraging people to hide their disagreement, even from themselves.”

I realize now as I did not back then that in that early encounter in Westwood I was not truly interested in the person to whom I was speaking, but was rather in the grip of an anxiety to discharge my responsibility. If we would truly be talmidim (disciples) of the one of whom it was said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” we are going to have to do better than I did.  We are going to have to relinquish our fetish for control, leave things just a tad bit more in the hands of God, and learn to listen to the people with whom we hope to share what is most precious to us.  We will have to earn the right to be heard by first learning to really listen–to let the agenda be set by what God is doing in that person more than by our pet presentation.

And true listening is not a strategy.  All of us have been in conversations where we could tell that the other person was not really listening to us, even if they nodded their head, smiled, and asked prompting questions.True listening cannot be faked, and when it is faked, it is not truly listening.

So let’s stop faking it.

Instead, Sh’ma Yisrael! Learn to listen!

About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at ShalomTalk.com. Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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