Do you remember the Waco, Texas 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians in 1993? Studying about it recently reinforced my belief in the art of listening. Did you know that the FBI’s hostage negotiation team, through active listening, respect, and gentle methods, secured the release of 35 people, 21 of them children? And that after the more aggressive tactical team took over, not one more person left the compound? We all know how that story ended in a blazing building and the needless deaths of 76 people.
We can negotiate smaller crises using active listening. Being heard and understood soothes the soul. When someone really listens, we start to feel that our complex anguish can be untangled, smoothed, soothed, combed out and carried away.
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). God tells us to listen first and speak second, but we reverse that order. We speak quickly, listen slowly if at all, and escalate at lightning speed. For proof, check out the friendly neighborhood opinionfest called social media.
The bedrock of listening is reflection, which involves saying back to the person, in our own words, what they’ve said to us. When I first learned about reflective listening, I vowed to give it a try, then promptly forgot about it. The next day I found a sink full of crusted-over dishes in the kitchen. I marched into my college-aged daughter’s bedroom, ready to defend my rights.
“You say you love me, but then you leave dishes in the sink!” I charged.
“Mom! I just had a really late conversation and I was tired!” she tensely retorted.
“If you don’t do them, I end up doing them! And then I feel like your maid!”
“Mom! I hate it when you say things like that!”
My daughter stood before me, her body literally scrunched up in defense mode, her face red, her voice ragged with hurt. Suddenly I remembered the little girl whose tears I’d dried so many times. There had to be a better way! Wait—I’d just learned about this thing called “reflective listening.” Maybe I should try it, I thought.
“So . . . it bothers you when I say that?” I asked, calmer.
“Yes!” she said.
“What about that bothers you?” I asked.
“Well . . .” she gathered her thoughts, “I don’t want you to feel like a maid. And I hate it when you question my love for you. I do love you. I don’t always show it, but I do.”
An amazing thing happened as I reflected her thoughts back to her. The red-faced girl’s shoulders dropped about three inches, from being scrunched around her neck to being relaxed.
At last I said, “I’m sorry, baby. I need to change the way I do things. I’ll do my best not to overinterpret your carelessness as not loving me. How about that?”
“Thanks mom. And you’re right. I am careless. I’ll try to do better.”
And she did.
I’m so inspired by the power of listening and other communication skills that I hope to put together a new training called Abide Peacemaker Training. This training would help equip individuals to, first and foremost, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Trainees will also be equipped to act as mediators in the conflict situations that arise in personal, family, work, and church life.
Would you be interested in such a training? Or, how have you witnessed the power of listening? Let me know by replying here.