Listening in context

By Jennifer Davis Rash
Executive Editor, The Alabama Baptist

The phone call caught me off guard. Immediately following my hello came a gruff voice of exaggerated volume filled with sarcasm and anger. The caller obviously was not happy and determined to tell me about it.

The frustration he was experiencing came simply from a misunderstanding of the situation, but he refused to have a two-way conversation. He only meant to express his anger and disappointment without allowing me the opportunity to explain. On top of that, he has trouble hearing so the few words I slipped in were misheard and thus more misunderstanding evolved. It was a no-win situation.

A few days prior to this phone conversation, I had a face-to-face conversation with someone who also left with an inaccurate view of the situation we discussed.

The information I shared was misinterpreted because the person didn’t truly focus on what was being said and had entered the conversation with preconceived ideas about the situation. A lot of negative energy and unnecessary grief resulted from a simple misinterpretation.

In between these two conversations, I was chatting with a dear friend about faith and various aspects related to faith. We are on the same page and actually follow the same line of thinking, but during that conversation, we described some aspects using different words. To me, we were still saying the same thing, just in different ways. But to her, we weren’t.

And as I outlined these three conversations in an attempt to process them, I experienced one more, albeit somewhat familiar, misunderstanding — a misunderstanding that results in my husband, Jason, missing the details of what I’m trying to explain.

Sure Jason understands me in general and knows my heart through and through, but he also has learned an amazing fake listening skill that allows me to talk and talk and talk (and I know that shocks all of you who know me) while I think he is hearing me and helping me process. Instead he tunes out the details and hears the main points, thus faking me off that he is listening. But the problem is he misses the fine nuances of the story. He walks away with a general overview but not a true understanding.

By the time the week of misunderstandings ended, I spent a great deal of time evaluating my communication skills. I was obviously the common denominator in all four situations.

After seeking answers in God’s Word, praying for direction and asking a close friend to shoot straight with me about me, I discovered that the communication breakdown came because I winked at context rather than taking it seriously. In all four cases, I expected the other person to understand me in my context, but I should have studied and understood his or her context first and then communicated in a language that made sense to him or her. This does not mean one context is better than the other but that communication can only truly take place if the words we say are defined the same by both parties. A person’s background, knowledge base, experience, understanding of the topic at hand, etc., also influence his or her interpretation of what is presented. If all of this can be considered and understood before an explanation is given, then the odds of successful communication are increased.

It does require more effort and takes longer to achieve, but if we add up the time wasted on frustration and clearing up confusion, then we might be surprised which one actually saves time.

Oddly enough, I heard a saying the same week all these conversations took place that popped back to my mind as I worked through this process — “We never have time to do things right the first time, but we always have time to do them over.”

One thought on “Listening in context

  1. I read a quote once along the lines of, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”… you captured the essence of that line perfectly. What a great lesson you have given to all of us who strive to become better communicators. Thanks for this!

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