By Anthony Casperson
Have you ever been in a counseling session (or even seen one in a fictional story) and noticed that the counselor tends to repeat what their patient said to them? The good ones tend toward using their own tone and vocabulary, but repetition it still is.
Part of the reason behind this is because counselors want to make sure that they understand what the patient is saying, giving them a chance to explain if things aren’t clear. But even more than that, counselors desire the patient to feel as though they are being listened to and understood.
Nothing can ruin any interpersonal relationship faster than one party feeling as if they have no voice. It tends to cause that person to act out. Some to yell and scream. Some to act violently. Some to believe that they’re worthless. Some to run away in tears.
A good counselor knows that in order to be willing to listen to constructive criticism, a person must know that they have been heard and understood. If an individual doesn’t believe that the one to whom they’re speaking has their best interest in mind, they won’t be willing to listen to anything being said, even if it would make their life better.
This right to have a voice is so strong that it will destroy the balance of any interpersonal relationship. The two-way street narrowed down to one, as the other way gets backed up beyond the horizon. That is, until something is done about it.
I believe that in Western/American culture, we reached the rise of this occasion a couple of generations ago. Many individuals have come to feel as if they have no voice. They come across others who are like them and join together, hoping that stereo (or surround sound) will give them enough volume to finally have their voice be heard. But those who have had their voice heard for so long fear that if others are listened to, if other voices are heard, then their voices will be silenced.
And this is where the problem comes to a head. Shouting matches, violence, shame, and tears. People act out because they believe they haven’t been heard. Anger rises. And no one is understood.
It doesn’t matter if the point of the disagreement is about gender, sexuality, color of one’s skin, place of one’s birth, level of one’s social rank, favorite sports team, favorite flavor of drink, pineapple on pizza, or how the toilet paper should be left on the roll. The sense of one’s right to a voice being stolen away causes friction in any interpersonal relationship. (I feel the need to point out that while all of the above disagreements might cause similar friction, they’re not all equal in importance of discussion.)
So, what’s the answer? How do we come to a place of feeling listened to when all that everybody wants to do is speak? For we who are followers of Jesus, the point is pretty clear in the bible. We are told in James 1:19-20 to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. The path to being like Jesus comes not from anger, not from fighting to be heard, but from listening.
I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we let the other person talk first and plan out our strategic verbal victory while they’re speaking. It’s humbly submitting ourselves to allow others their right to a voice. Some might be wondering, “But what about my own right? Is it not as important as the other person’s?”
Yes, every person’s voice is just as important as every other individual’s. But, if one person doesn’t give up their right and put other people’s interests before their own, the shouting matches, violence, shame, and separation will not cease. The point of being like Jesus is to selflessly put aside our own rights in order to allow others to witness the love of God.
If we allow others to feel heard, their anger might just be put aside as well, which allows the Spirit to work in their lives and lead them to a proper relationship with Jesus. Look at the next verse in James 1. Verse 21 says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Putting aside the anger that arises when we speak first and listen never, salvation is able to work in us. The setting right of our relationship with God can come about when we listen. And it can work in the lives of those who have not yet come to follow Jesus as well.
That means that if we allow others to speak, while we listen, they might just allow us the return favor. There’s no guarantee that we’ll be listened to if we allow others to speak first. But the truth is that such people would never have listened even if we spoke first. We’re more like Jesus for listening. Hopefully, we’ve grown from the experience. And the people who don’t want to listen have made their choice to reject the gospel before it was ever spoken to them.
We’re better off every time for having listened first. And some people will return the favor, listening to the truth of God, and follow him.
How is that not the better option?