Do We Really Want to Listen?

The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. 

One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who came down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous!” Or, “Keep up the good work.” Or, “We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.”

It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Not quite knowing what to say, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

There are several reasons that no true listening can ever take place in a fast-paced receiving line. Music, noise and the activity of other people can be distracting. What’s more, the purpose of the line is more for a quick greeting rather than concerned listening. And one more thing…folks are more intent on getting out what they want to say to the president than listening to what might be said to them. But I wonder…did they WANT to hear what he had to say?

All my life I’ve carried a mental picture of my grandfather Melvin the way I saw him so many times – stooped over, head bowed low, intently listening to whomever he was chatting with. He was a tall man and a bit hard of hearing. The reason for his unusual posture was no doubt to get his ear closer to the speaker’s mouth,(especially a six-year-old on the way to fishing in the pond across from their home) but it gave the illusion that, for a few minutes at least, he wanted nothing more than to listen carefully to every word the other had to say. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.” The way my grandfather listened was as if he were paying the speaker a supreme compliment. His body language said, “Here, let me get a little closer and listen. I truly want to hear what you have to say.”

The key to good listening isn’t technique, it’s desire. Eye contact is helpful. So is asking pertinent questions, paraphrasing to be sure you understand, refraining from interrupting or changing the subject – all of these techniques are helpful. But the best way to ensure that you will listen well isn’t in HOW you listen, it’s mostly in simply wanting to understand.

I believe that is the crucial question: do we WANT to understand? Until we truly want to understand the other person, we’ll never listen well. 

And so, we pray: Father, Help me to really want to listen to all who want to speak to me, especially help me to really listen – enough to understand and care. Amen.

Grace and Peace

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