At a leadership training event I attended in January, we were invited to: “talk to someone you love tonight. Ask them: ‘what is one thing that is getting in the way of our relationship?’ Ask, listen, don’t argue or defend, and then say thank you.”
Since I was out of town, I texted my two oldest children. (They are of the generation that thinks talking on the phone is very weird.) The 17-year-old replied right away, “Sometimes you’re too emotional, but that’s just a personal thing.”
I thanked him but did not make any promises to change. He knows me better. This will be his last year in my house before heading off to college.
The 13-year-old wrote, “Sometimes you talk over me when I’m trying to talk.”
This response hit a little harder, and I could immediately visualize how often I’m more intent on telling him what to think than allowing him space to process. I also thanked him and added simply that I’ll try to do better.
“It’s ok,” he texted back, “I don’t really like talking anyway.”
* * *
Statistics show that most of us, if we made New Year’s resolutions, have forgotten them by now. I’m still trying—one of my resolutions was to ask more questions and be a better listener. In addition to the feedback from my sons, the overwhelming message the Holy Spirit seems bent on teaching me is that one of the greatest ways to love my neighbor is to ask good questions and then shut up long enough to let them talk. This calling feels even higher when we consider that research shows the average person listens at about 25% efficiency.
My most intentional listening practice has come via participation in a Colossians Way group at my church. Each Wednesday night for several weeks I sat around a table with twelve others to discuss a topic in which we do not agree. My intention is to listen well and respond sparingly with honesty and vulnerability—without the objective of convincing anyone of my opinion. The handbook for a recent session said: “In today’s culture of polarization and outrage, it’s a real miracle when someone listens carefully and humbly to another person. It’s doubly so if they pause quietly for a moment before answering.”
Calling the act of listening a miracle may seem like hyperbole, but I can attest to how it changes the tenor of a room and the hearts within it. I also freely admit that I often find myself listening to respond, rather than truly hearing.
The other day, a friend opened up and shared a heavy burden with me. When I inquired as to whether she was finding support, she nodded, and talked about her different experiences with counselors, friends, and pastors: “It’s easier,” she said through her tears, “if they don’t just tell me it’s okay. If they just allow me to feel conflicted and confused.”
In Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, Anne Lamott recommends that in addition to simply showing up for our friends during hard times, an even bigger gift is avoiding “snappy answers.”
My friend Elizabeth, who has cancer and recently had a lung removed, would agree with Lamott. Elizabeth is co-authoring a book, to be published by Eerdmans, called Irreverent Prayers: On Talking to God When You’re Seriously Sick, and her current Lenten practice is writing a new prayer each morning, a prayer I am honored she shares with me. A recent prayer ended with a plea to make well-wishers “tongues heavy so that they don’t try to make me feel better but instead just hear me.”
My mind flashes to the biblical story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24. As the two men journey seven miles from Jerusalem, we are told “Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I’m taken by how Jesus, in this scene, seems much more intent on being present and asking questions than immediately solving any mysteries: “‘What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?’” he asked. Though we may find ourselves rushing to the part of the story where Jesus eventually reveals himself, maybe the miracle begins with the way he first slowed down, asked questions, and listened as the men revealed their hearts and fractured hope.
“In the Bible, Jesus is asked 187 questions. He answers (maybe) 8 of them. He asks 307,” says Kevin Nye. “Maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask—and sit in the complexity of—good questions.”
* * *
One of the best parts of my job as an instructional coach in a K-12 school district is observing in classrooms. During a recent visit to a fourth grade classroom, I watched students use sentence stems to ask each other questions, admired the civility and thoughtfulness of the classroom culture the teacher had created, and awed at the intentionality with which these nine- and ten-year-olds practiced the skill of truly listening to each other.
I’ve often heard that the classroom is a rehearsal for real life, but instead I find it’s often the best version of it. The way I witness young students listen and consider other points of view without vitriol is something adults could learn from. If government, church leadership, and school board meetings looked more like a fourth grade classroom, it would require adults not to stoop to a lower level, but to uphold a higher standard.
As someone who cares deeply about education, I value research-informed best practices, but I believe at its heart teaching is an art form. And one of the greatest things good art does is make room for questions.
I took a bit of a winding road to becoming a teacher. One of my hindrances was a stutter that peaked during my college years. Getting words out, especially while reading my own writing or reading aloud a meaningful text, was the trickiest. A few years after graduation and into a career at a small publishing company that never felt like a calling, I was finally able to conjure up the bravery to go back to school to get a teaching certificate. I knew I’d likely stutter in the classroom, but I pushed ahead.
I remember that first year well, how I could cover up the stutter 90% of the time, but when it came time to read aloud, sometimes the words would get stuck. Things changed—and my stutter improved—when I explained my stutter instead of trying to cover up my imperfections. The temperature in the room warmed when I leaned into vulnerability. In a middle school classroom, where self confidence levels tend to be low, opening up my imperfections unlocked doors. And it turns out my students were better listeners when I told the truth.
And yet, during those years when my stutter showed up most often, what was perhaps the most frustrating was when someone, in an effort to help me or escape any hint of awkwardness, would try to finish a sentence for me. There is no better way to throw a stutterer off than an attempt to rescue. Whether or not it is intended, the rush to replace or presume a stutterer’s stuck words communicates that the listener has neither the patience or the flexibility to allow space for discomfort.
I can’t help but see the connection to a scene in Keith Mannes’s recent Reformed Journal essay where he described his experience with a retired banker who had “given up on God long ago.” Key parts of Keith’s witness were these phrases: “I listened for a long time,” “I presented no argument,” and “silence surrounded us.” It was Keith’s ability to listen, his presence without pressure, and finally the sharing of his own story when the time was right that cultivated the fertile soil for the man’s heart to feel drawn toward God.
When we resist the urge to say too much, we get out of the way enough to allow the Spirit space to work.
* * *
My youngest son, Levi, who just turned eleven, still lets me read aloud to him every night. This practice of reading to my own children has allowed me to find some comfort and ease in my own voice. But lest I make this bedtime tradition sound too charming and idyllic, please allow me to confess: many evenings, I’m more tired and scolding than warm and nurturing. Some nights when my patience wanes, I push through the pages, pleading with Levi to just be quiet and let me read him to sleep.
This seldom happens because he is the king of questions. He was in first grade when I read Charlotte’s Web to him. I had just finished the first chapter and set down the book abruptly, rushing to say his prayers and head to bed myself, when he stopped me with a question: “When did they kill the pig?”
I looked at him, puzzled and a bit irritated, as clearly the chapter had detailed how young Fern had pulled an ax out of her father’s hand, convinced him of the injustice of killing the runt of the litter, and concluded with Fern seated on the kitchen floor nursing the newly-named Wilbur with a warm bottle of milk.
“No pigs have died,” I assured him. “Didn’t you listen? Fern just saved the runt.”
But my seven-year-old son, persistent and wide awake, shook his head, grabbed the book, turned back to page three, and pointed to these words: “The kitchen table was set for breakfast, and the room smelled of coffee, bacon, damp plaster, and wood smoke from the stove.”
“If no pigs have died, how could this family be eating bacon?” he asked indignantly.
In shock at my son’s attentiveness and wisdom (and my lack thereof), I had no good answers for him. Eating bacon while saving a pig was a reality we tried to grapple with together.
My hindsight bias allows me to see now that Levi had stumbled upon two hard truths. One is that good questions require paying attention, listening, and energy. The second, a theme of the book that I might have otherwise rushed past, is that not everyone can be saved, especially in the way we think, and oftentimes the best way forward is to simply stay present, and give up the illusion of wrapping up hard realities into neat and simple packages.
If we listen closely, we may find that God does not view people as problems to be solved, and that right answers are often an illusion. We may find that the gift of salvation was never something to be earned by our hands — or rationalized by our words. We may find that for the Spirit to speak, we may need to shut our mouths.