More times than not, our inability to converse in a healthy way has more to do with the condition of our heart than with the quickness of our mind. Genuine listening is a tremendous gift.

I am worn out and worn down by the ugly, shrill voices filling social media channels today. Maybe you are as well. It is difficult to imagine living in a more divided world. But we would be mistaken to chalk it up to a mere division in ideologies. It is not just that. Much more than that, it is a complete brokenness in our ability to converse with one another. To put an even finer point on the problem, it is our really, really poor listening skills. Our culture is losing its ability to approach a difficult conversation with any real ability to listen well. We have been too busy honing our abilities to make a compelling and persuasive argument.

I do this all the time. As someone is talking (or writing or otherwise communicating), I immediately begin “listening” for their bias or agenda. As soon as I conclude I have found it, I stop listening and start preparing my response. If you are totally honest, you will admit that you do it as well. It is a “contentiousness” in my heart, and it springs up out of my own arrogance and pride. At that point, I can act as if I am listening, but I likely cannot not hide the fact that my heart is not listening at all. My true way of being makes genuine listening impossible.

Jesus warned us about this problem in our human condition:

“It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

“You don’t get wormy apples off a healthy tree, nor good apples off a diseased tree. The health of the apple tells the health of the tree. You must begin with your own life-giving lives. It’s who you are, not what you say and do, that counts. Your true being brims over into true words and deeds. Luke 5:41-45 (The Message)

Please know that this problem doesn’t just surface in our Facebook comments, and it is much, much more than merely a political or ideological problem. It happens in our closest relationships as well, especially those family relationships which are damaged or broken because of some unresolved pain or issue. In those instances, we are prone to approach every conversation with a contentious heart. We have something important we want to communicate and, frankly, “listening” is simply not very high on our list of priorities. Or, maybe we enter the conversation with an intent to listen well but then our “button” gets pushed and our heart immediately hardens.

Irrespective of how quickly or easily we get there, the problem is very clearly NOT just about our inability to have a conversation. The problem is with our heart. We cannot connect (which is critical in any relationship) because we cannot listen. We cannot listen, because our heart is at war with the other person. Being able to have difficult conversations IN ANY ARENA–but most certainly in relationships that matter most to us–requires that we fully embrace the humanity of the person on the other side of the conversation. It requires that we listen for his/her pain and truly understand it. Really listening requires that we put that pain on and walk with it a while, just to make sure we understand it. Listening requires me to think a little less of myself and how superior I am to them, and rather to give them the benefit of my doubt and assume that they are not the complete fool I may think they must be. It requires the humility on my part to admit I may have misjudged them. That is a tall order for me. But so very worth it when I get it right.

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