I’ll Listen . . . in a Couple Minutes

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

170324255_6e79d044e5_mEver notice how skewed our sense of time is when it comes to certain things?

Sometimes our words take the low side of reality:

A missionary asks for 2-3 minutes to address the congregation.

At the end of a visit at a friend’s house, the parents tell their children that they’ll leave in 5 minutes.

A daughter texts her mom, “I’ll be out in a second.”

The progress bar on the software download reads, “2 minutes remaining.”

A husband says that fixing the faucet will take “half an hour, tops.”

Of course, it goes in the other direction, as well:

A friend reports, “When I said it, his jaw dropped and he just stared at me . . . for probably 10 minutes.”

A patient tells the doctor, “I exercise at least a half our every day.”

A worship leader announces, “Let’s take 10-12 minutes to pray silently.”

And a teacher is sure he’s waiting a good three minutes after every question he asks in front of the class.

Can you hear the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the . . . Anyone? Anyone? . . . the Great Depression, passed the . . . Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which . . . Anyone? Raised or lowered? . . . raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. (courtesy of IMDB.com)

When we’re asking questions, it’s so easy to answer ourselves rather than let others’ thoughts coalesce in the silence. When we’re listening, it’s so easy to rush others to get to the point rather than allow them to get to the heart of what they’re feeling.

Christian author Philip Yancey, somewhat more eloquent than the Ben Stein character, knows a thing or two about listening—to God and to other people. In Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? he writes:

Listening is an art, and I must learn to listen to God just as I have had to learn to listen as a journalist. When I interview people, I ask a question and they give an answer. Early on, especially when the interview subjects were nervous and halting, I would jump in and finish their sentences. I learned, though, that if I don’t interrupt or move quickly to a follow-up question, if I sit in silence for a while, they may speak again, filling in details. Counselors know this too.

We can learn a quite a bit from good, experienced teachers, theologians, journalists, and counselors. There are a lot of people who need to be heard. All we need to do is . . . Anyone? Anyone?

(Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Zondervan, 2006)

[photo: “Time Is Running Out,” by Andrea Zamboni, used under a Creative Commons license]

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear When I’m Hurting

September 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

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“Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids

The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.

When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.

Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?

At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that can get on with life.

I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.

You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:

1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)

We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.

“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .

2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.

This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”

3 – Do you mind if I take this call?

When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.

4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)

I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .

5 – When one door closes, another one opens.

A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.

6 – Let me know if you need anything.

Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.

7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)

Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.

8 – You need to move on.

It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.

9 – I want the old you back.

There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.

And last, but not least . . .

10 – This is just a season.

Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?


I Need to Listen with Grace, Too

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.

Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.

I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.

“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”

It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.

When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)

[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]

Don’t Know Your Malayalam from your Malay? Try Listening with Your Eyes

June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

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First, let me introduce you to The Great Language Game. Created by “data scientist” Lars Yencken, this online challenge presents you with a series of audio clips that you try to identify from the list of language names given below each one. The better you do, the further you go, and the lists get longer. It’s a little bit of easy. Of course that’s French and not Mandarin! It’s a little bit of impossible. That’s really the name of a language? And it’s a lot of fun.

Go ahead and give it a try. It doesn’t take long. I’ll wait for you.

I’m thinking I could get a higher score if I could see the people speaking. It would really be great if they were wearing their national dress (think Miss Universe pageant). OK, that’s a bit much, but it might help a little even if I could see just their mouths. Of course, being familiar with the languages at hand is the biggest factor. But it make sense that looking at the way people speak should help us distinguish one language from another. You don’t need to have a PhD to figure that out. Actually, you don’t even have to be in preschool.

Kids See the Darndest Things

Janet Werker, director of the University of British Columbia’s Infant Studies Centre, has long been studying babies’ abilities to recognize different languages. Her research shows that infants as young as seven months old can hear the difference between languages by listening to grammar patterns. Werker was also part of a team, led by one of her students, Whitney Weikum, showing that even-younger babies can see the difference.

The group of researchers showed four-month-olds—from English-speaking households—silent videos of bilingual speakers using English or French or switching between the two. The babies were more interested and watched the videos longer when the speakers alternated languages.

When they tested six-month-old infants, some from monolingual homes and some from English-and-French-speaking homes, the results were the same. But when they showed the videos to eight-month-old babies, only the ones from bilingual homes continued to be able to distinguish the languages.

According to the researchers, this suggests that older “monolingual” babies lose their sensitivity to visual cues in language recognition because they no longer need them. “Bilingual” children, on the other hand, keep their ability longer, because they still need it as they learn two languages.

So if we lose that skill with age, how can those of us getting along in years work on regaining it? Welcome the lip-reading computer.

And Computers See Even More

If I had a computer that could read lips, I’d just sit back and watch it in awe. But five years ago a team of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s School of Computing Sciences couldn’t leave well-enough alone and gave their lip-reading computer the ability to recognize languages. Stephen Cox, one of the team’s leaders, says that their work is “the first scientific confirmation of something we already intuitively suspected—that when people speak different languages, they use different mouth shapes in different sequences.”

The group, using “statistical modeling,” studied the mouth movements of 23 bilingual and trilingual speakers. The result is a technology that can distinguish between a range of languages—from the similar to the widely different—including English, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Polish, and Russian.

So it seems that with practice, and a little technological help, we should be able to see the difference between spoken languages even if we can’t hear them. Why, we might get to the point where our looking-without-listening skills could rival our ability to listen with our eyes closed.

But We Don’t Need Our Eyes to Hear, Right?

Well, maybe it’s time to revisit The Great Language Game for a reminder of how imprecise our listening skills can be. Or if that isn’t sufficiently humbling, take a look at the following video on the “McGurk Effect.” Also called the “McGurk Illusion,” the phenomenon was discovered by accident as Harry McGurk and his lab assistant, John MacDonald, both of the University of Surrey, were studying how infants develop their perception of speech.

It’s bad enough when you need help to identify languages, but simple, basic letter sounds? I give up.

(Whitney Weikum, et al., “Babies Able to Tell through Visual Cues when Speakers Switch Languages,” ScienceDaily, May 25, 2007; “Lip-Reading Computers Can Detect Different Languages,” University of East Anglia, April 22, 2009;”The McGurk Effect: Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Haskins Laboratories)

[photo: “Hear No Evil,” by McBeths Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Solitude”: Familiar but Often Forgotten

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous poem is also published under the title “The Way of the World.” It may be the way of the world, but it does not have to be our way.

SOLITUDE.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

(Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, W. B. Conkey, 1883)

[photo: “Solitude,” by murielle29, used under a Creative Commons license]

For Global Nomads, a Better Question than “Where Are You From?”

June 6, 2014 § 4 Comments

3117467895_011eeea741_zLast week I had the extreme pleasure of meeting with a small group who came together as Global Nomads.

The vocabulary in the conversations was peppered with insider words and phrases. Of course there was global nomad itself, as well as TCK and Adult Third Culture Kid and army brat and MK. But there was also talk of using “English English” and recognizing something as “weirdly comforting.”

No one was in charge. No one gave a prepared presentation. Instead, we just talked. It was kind of like a panel discussion where the audience was the panel itself.

Everyone there was a professional in higher education, but the backgrounds and countries represented were diverse. I was the first one to arrive, and as others came into the room, I asked them, out of habit, “Where are you from?” I only meant “Where do you live?” or “Where did you arrive here from?” I really wasn’t looking for a philosophical response, but in this group, it may have felt as if I were. One person responded with something like, “Oh, that is the question, isn’t it?”

We went around the room and introduced ourselves, and as people continued to join us, we introduced ourselves again. One person had started a group for global nomads on her college campus. One had done her doctoral dissertation on TCKs and university life. One had married an Adult TCK. One was preparing to move overseas.

One mentioned a book he’d read about authors who’d grown up abroad. When I later searched for it on the internet, I found out it is Antje M. Rauwerda’s The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others. While I was looking, I also ran across Writing out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids, a compilation of essays by and about TCKs, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, Nina SichelFaith Eidse, and Elaine Neil Orr. I’ve added both books to my Amazon.com Wish List, but I’m afraid the prices will continue to go up rather than down. Even the used copies are over $30.

My search also led me to a blog post written by Sichel, who, along with Eidse, also edited Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Globala book that I’d put on my list long ago. In her post, “The Trouble with Third Culture Kids,” Sichel talks, in the context of children’s mental health, about “chameleons,” “adjustment problems,” “TCK grief,” and “existential loss.”

She writes about a young TCK who is struggling: “She doesn’t want to talk about it.  She doesn’t know where to begin.” When you meet such a girl, she says, “don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.” Instead, she offers a better response, one that would work with adult “kids” as well:

Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story—many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.

“Where have you lived?” I’m going to try that next time I meet a global nomad. And if she seems to be weighed down in her soul, I’ll ask, “What have you left behind?” Then I’ll try to be quiet and just listen.

(Nina Sichel, “The Trouble with Third Culture Kids,” Children’s Mental Health Network, February 11, 2013)

[photo: “Which Way to Go,” by theilr, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listening and the Spirit of Unhurried Leisure

May 14, 2014 § 3 Comments

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“Get busy.”

That’s the mantra of many a boss.

“Look busy.”

That’s what coworkers say when the boss is coming.

Busyness isn’t always a synonym for work. In fact, busyness can get in the way of productivity.

Eugene Peterson, best known for his translation of the Bible, The Message, also served as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, for 30 years. One of the consistent themes in his teaching and writing is that pastors should not fall into the seductive trap of busyness. Instead, as he writes in “The Unbusy Pastor,” his goal in his role as a church leader was to do three things, things that are too easily pushed aside by a busy life: to pray, to preach, and to listen.

Listening, he says, needs “unhurried leisure.” This leisure is the opposite of busyness. And just as busyness does not equal work, neither is leisure the same thing as laziness. Instead, leisure is having time at one’s disposal, and when one chooses to use that time for listening to what someone else has to say, it is a very valuable gift.

The passage below was written by Peterson in 1981. It is about and for pastors, but it can help any of us listen better, unless, of course, listening is something else we’ve ceded over to the professionals.

I want to be a pastor who listens. A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what is going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so when they are through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.

Listening is in short supply in the world today; people aren’t used to being listened to. I know how easy it is to avoid the tough, intense work of listening by being busy (letting the hospital patient know there are ten more persons I have to see). Have to? But I’m not indispensable to any of them, and I am here with this one. Too much of pastoral visitation is punching the clock, assuring people we’re on the job, being busy, earning our pay.

Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s for only five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambience of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to people. The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?” The number of persons listened to must necessarily be less than the number spoken to. Listening to a story always takes more time than delivering a message, so I must discard my compulsion to count, to compile the statistics that will justify my existence.

(Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” Leadership, Summer, 1981, also in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, reprint edition, Eerdmans, 1993)

[photo: “Railway Chit Chat,” by Brett Davies, used under a Creative Commons license]

Repost: Are You Listening? Really Listening?

March 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

[My family is moving across town this week, so I haven’t been able to work on the blog much lately. So here’s a repost from about a year and a half ago. This transition thing can feel like Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep.” But until that rest comes, I’ll look for a park bench along the way.]

Finding good listeners is very important to missionaries. In fact, when member-care trainer Brenda Bosch surveyed missionaries about what they wanted from their mission agency, the top answer was “someone to listen to me.”

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that listening is necessary in Christian community. He calls it the “first service” that Christians owe each other:

Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.

For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfillment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God.

In the latter paragraph, Bonhoeffer describes a false, inadequate kind of listening. In reading what is lacking there, we can see the qualities required of a good listener. Are you someone who listens in that way?

  • Do you listen with a “whole” ear?
  • Do you presume that you will hear something unique and valuable?
  • Are you patient?
  • Are you attentive?
  • Do you love the speaker?
  • Do you waive your right to speak?
  • Do you hope to keep the other person in your presence, sharing with you?
  • Are you fulfilling your task, to your neighbors and to God?

The New Testament records Jesus saying several times, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In The Message, this is translated, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

Thanks to Brian Stankich at FULFILL for drawing my attention to the survey in his post “11 Types of Care Missionaries Want from Their Sending Agencies and Co-Workers.”

(Brenda Bosch, “Summary of Missionary Survey Outcomes,” Global Member Care Network Conference, April 2012; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, 98-99)

[photo: “Listen carefully,” by Justin Lynham, used under a Creative Commons license]

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