We don’t really hear each other. I think the older I get the more aware I am of the truth in this. We just plain don’t hear each other.
Of course we see this most clearly with little things. For example, I asked my husband to please take the trash from our bathroom outside and instead he moved the trash from our room to the kitchen. When I asked him, he said “Oh, I didn’t understand what you said!” Okay. Actually I think he just didn’t hear me. Not really. I had been careful to use the word “outside” to make it clear that I wanted it to go all the way out, but he didn’t hear it. He undoubtedly heard what he wanted to hear, but it wasn’t what I said.
Other times, we hear the words but we make assumptions about what they really mean. I told Jonah I thought he should look at other colleges since he seems to be changing his idea about what he wants to study. Later he told me that since he was just going to community college next year it would save us a bundle. I asked, “What do you mean?” To which he responded, “Didn’t you tell me I shouldn’t go to the colleges I’ve been accepted into already?” No, that’s not at all what I said, and it certainly wasn’t what I meant to communicate. I just said he should look at other colleges to see if there is a better match for what he is wanting to do. But he assumed I meant something else. He took what I said and expanded it to mean something different. In this case he heard what he expected to hear.
But I think there are other, much more profound ways in which we do not hear one another. I cannot count the times I’ve thought that I’ve said one thing in a sermon only to have people respond in ways that make it clear they’ve heard exactly the opposite of what I was intending to communicate. This has worked both for me and against me at various times. I’ve had parishioners say, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear today!” after which they have “said back” to me the exact opposite of what I thought I’d said. I’ve also had parishioners say that they really disagreed with me and then explain to me a belief that I have in common with them. When I’ve tried to tell them, “that’s actually what I just said” usually their response is to argue… (sigh). I’m not alone in this. My pastor friends talk about this happening to them pretty regularly and I remember one time when I was able to witness it first hand. I was standing with a pastor friend of mine and one of his parishioners. His parishioner was telling him very excitedly that she was going to see the replica of Noah’s ark in Kentucky. She said that this proved the ark had been real and she couldn’t wait to see it. He responded, “Well, actually, I don’t really believe that.” She said, “Oh, I know. People shouldn’t really have to see the replica in order to know that it historically happened!” It was beyond her vision, her understanding, and her comprehension to believe that a pastor, her own pastor, especially, might not believe in the historicity of Noah’s ark. So even when he told her that he didn’t, she morphed what he said into something that made sense to her. In these cases, I think people are hearing what they’ve heard others say who are in similar roles or positions, so they are transferring others’ thoughts and ideas onto another, usually because of the role or position that person has. They have expectations or assumptions about others’ beliefs and they can’t hear otherwise.
Finally, there are times when a person will hear something, they’ll be able to repeat it back, but within a week or so they’ve forgotten it. It will be said again, they’ll again be able to repeat it back, but another week will go by and they will have forgotten it again. I have found this to be particularly true with discussions of theology or deep self-reflection. I have two examples of this. I had a parishioner who really struggled against the idea of God as a man sitting in the clouds cursing some and blessing others. We had really good conversations about why I didn’t believe this either. At the end of each talk, she would say, “Wow. That’s so helpful. I have a much better understanding now. And I don’t feel bad anymore about not believing in that kind of God. Thank you.” A week would go by and she would approach me again, “I don’t understand how people believe in this God in the clouds who curses some and blesses others.” And again, I would take it on but try using different words. “I don’t understand that either. That doesn’t match what I believe either. My God is not ‘all powerful’ but has given us free-will and interacts with us through relationships.” “Oh, that’s helpful,” she would say. “You’ve really cleared that up!” Another week would go by and she’d come back again, “I don’t understand this image of a God who makes terrible things to happen to some but not to others…” Around and around and around it kept happening. I started to feel that perhaps I wasn’t understanding the real issue, so I’d just ask more and more questions, trying to get underneath it. But nothing really new or different was expressed. Somewhere between us in this communication we were not hearing each other.
My second example is more personal. When we were going through our hardest time, I was seeing a wonderful therapist to help me navigate those waters. Usually she just helped me to understand my own thoughts better, to hear my own insights more clearly. But there was a time when I asked her point black for her opinion about something. She paused thoughtfully and then said to me, “I don’t think that you are ready to hear what I think about this. And my experience is that if I tell people things that they are not ready to hear, that they can’t take it in; can’t hear it, can’t retain it, can’t remember it.” This, of course, made me more curious. So I asked her to tell me anyway. She did so, and my memory was that I responded with, “Wow. Well, thank you for that. I will sit with that and really ponder it.” But I’ll tell you the truth, by the end of the day I couldn’t for the life of me remember what she had said. I hadn’t been able to hear it, retain it, or take it in, just as she had predicted. I still don’t remember it. I remember only that the interaction happened. This mirrors some early childhood parenting classes that I had taken which said that if a young child starts asking questions about things like where babies come from or other things that we feel are beyond their age of understanding, it’s okay to answer them because they will only retain what they are old enough and mature enough to retain. This was true for my own children. They often asked huge or deep questions. But as they grew they would ask those questions again, repeating back to me only a tiny part of what I had told them before. Each time they would retain more as their own ability to do so grew with their age and experience. But they could not retain the whole of what I was saying until they had matured enough to take it in.
My point here is that sometimes we just aren’t ready to hear or retain certain pieces of information. We can’t comprehend it or make it part of our understanding of the world, so we simply don’t. And this, too, greatly reduces our ability to hear one another.
Finally we often fail to hear one another because we are starting at different places with different values. I was listening to some talks recently on the difference between liberals and conservatives. One of the key findings was that liberals and conservatives start with different basic value systems. But because we don’t understand or we fail to hear those really innate, underlying differences, we continue to try to “persuade” using our own set of values. Of course this fails, every time. If we don’t start with the same understanding we will never be able to hear with understanding those who start at a very different place with different base assumptions and values.
The truth is that our ability to hear one another is crucial. Relationships are built on communication, and communication must start with hearing. We cannot begin to understand, to relate, to truly care for one another without starting with hearing. But obviously, hearing is not simple. It is not easy. There is a reason good listeners are sought out for counseling, spiritual direction, guidance, coaching. They are sought out because most of us struggle to hear and be heard. But perhaps that choice to really hear has to begin with us.
So what do we do with this? People don’t hear one another for the reasons I mentioned above. They don’t hear because they hear what they want to hear, hear what they expect to hear, make assumptions, hear what they can hear, hear what fits with their basic world views. How can we improve hearing? With practice. We ask clarifying questions. We repeat back what we think we have heard to see if we are really getting down to the gist of it. We admit when we are struggling to understand. We write down what the other has said so that we can go back to it and try to hear it again. We ask more questions. We try to understand where the thoughts and ideas and expressions are coming from. We ask for clarity again.
In this age where we have become more and more divided, the only hope for bridging those divides will be to start with hearing, to open up to grow deeper in our understanding and our willingness to learn from each other. It is a choice we must make to strive to listen, to close our mouths to hear more clearly and deeply. In a world of increasing division, isolation, fear and anger, it is essential that we make that beginning today.