Listening is important, a basic and vital action for learning, communicating, and fostering healthy relationships. When we don’t listen, our relationships suffer and unravel. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says the number one way we show love to someone is by listening to them. The Bible also puts a premium on listening and regards those who don’t listen as fools. Yet, we are losing the ability to listen today. What undermines our ability to listen? In this episode Tim and Rick consider two obstacles to listening: pre-judgment and covert definitions. This is part 1 of a 2-part discussion on the obstacles to listening.
Tim Muehlhoff: If we're going to be serious about the Winsome Conviction Project, we have got to reclaim listening as a precursor to having productive disagreements with each other.
Rick Langer: Hi, my name is Rick Langer and I'm a professor here at Biola in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department. I'm the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning. I'm also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, and that is a Winsome Conviction Podcast you're tuning into that we do with my co-host, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm a professor of communication here at Biola University, co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project. Today, we're going to talk about a topic that is paramount. Some people have even said it's become a lost art today as we engage in the argument culture, and that is the power of listening. In a book I wrote called I Beg To Differ, I included a story from a friend of mine that I thought would be a great opening to this topic. One day, Jane is driving on a road and a bridge with a friend of hers and they drive by, Rick, and they see something on the other two lanes that is almost like, "I can't believe I'm seeing that." So Jane turns around quickly and there is a woman in a fur coat that is on the outside of the rails of this bridge prepared to jump off the bridge.
Rick Langer: Oh, my.
Tim Muehlhoff: So Jane tells her friend to stop immediately, call 911, and Jane, who speaker for Crew, runs, crosses traffic, and there is a woman ready to jump and she has no idea what to do. She says to her, "Hi, my name's-"
Rick Langer: "How you doing?"
Tim Muehlhoff: "Hi, my name's Jane." No response from this woman whatsoever. She said, "That is a beautiful coat. That is a beautiful fur coat." No response. She said, "And you're a beautiful person." No response. Then Jane says this, "And you seem to me to be very sad. I just want you to know I'm ready to listen. I will listen to what's happening." No response. Without her ever looking at Jane, she reaches out her hand towards Jane and Jane takes her hand and guides her over the rails, and then the police come with EMS come immediately.
Tim Muehlhoff: Later, I said to her, "What in the world?" She goes, "Oh, Tim. I was trying to remember every movie I've ever seen." And she said, "All I could do is offer to listen. That's it and the woman responded to that." M. Scott Peck in his groundbreaking book The Road Less Traveled said the number one way we show love to a person is by listening to them, and that listening cut through to a woman and it is not hyperbole to say probably saved her life.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: But listening, we are losing the ability to listen to each other today.
Rick Langer: You know, Tim, that reminds me of an experience I had, much less frightening but pretty significant for me as well. I was leading a team of immediate kind of post-college students. We were overseas. We were in Guam and we're working with high school students there. We had probably about a dozen people. This is also associated with Crew, and we had been through ... It was a bit of a bootcamp kind of experience, very intensive evangelism, discipleship kind of thing, and we had been working together for several months and we were drawing kind of to a close of that season of our time together. I thought it'd be good to have one of these kind of not final conversations, but a moment where we just had some really good conversations with one another.
Rick Langer: I said, "Look, we're going to take our staff meeting time today and just talk about what you have experienced from one another in the past few months that really conveyed love to you. How have we loved you in the course of this time?" And so everybody began to talk. We ended up talking for probably four hours about this and you know what the number one thing people said was, Tim? "Someone listened to me." By the time we'd heard it six times, we almost started to laugh. It was an incredible moment where I just realized how much we savor and value the gift of attention and yet how rarely we actually give it.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's so true. Just to note the importance of listening, most of us spend at least 50% of our waking time listening to those around us. In the business world, executives and managers report that 60% of their time is spent listening. In a study that asked participants to rate which communication skills were most important in both establishing a career and in interpersonal relationships, listening was ranked first in both categories. The Bible places unbelievable emphasis on listening.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right? We could say Book of Proverbs, I love Proverbs 18:13, "To answer before listening, that is folly and shame to a person." Rick, isn't that interesting? We get the folly part, right? I think we understand the folly part.
Rick Langer: Because you end up saying things that are stupid because you didn't hear what the person is actually saying.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and welcome to my world, Rick. I was on-
Rick Langer: I wasn't going to bring that up, but go ahead, Tim. Unpack that for me.
Tim Muehlhoff: I was on the debate team in college and did standup comedy at local clubs.
Rick Langer: At the same time?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, the same time. That is a dangerous combination for my sweet wife, right?
Rick Langer: I can only imagine.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, [Noreen 00:05:29] will start to say something and I interrupt her. I just jump in and give her this answer, and Noreen will say something like, "Honey, that's not even what I was talking about." My response is, "But if it was ..."
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: "If it was ..." So we have got to ... If we're going to be serious about the Winsome Conviction Project, we have got to reclaim listening as a precursor to having productive disagreements with each other.
Rick Langer: And you were talking about, we were talking about this is a bit of folly to not listen, but what was it you were going to say about shame?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, shame. So think isn't it fascinating that the ancient writers would attach shame to it?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I think, Rick, it has to do with belittling a person. I don't think your perspective is worthy of my time or-
Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... I think I already know it. I know all you liberals. I know all you conservatives. I know exactly what you guys think, right? So shame is heaped, but if we do shame, we can do the inverse. To honor a person by listening to them and giving credence to what they have to say is incredibly important. So here's what we thought we would do in this podcast. If listening is so important, then let's tackle some of the obstacles to listening. What keeps us from doing it? Now, Rick and I are going to talk about this academically. Do not read into that this is what we struggle with.
Rick Langer: Whatever you do, do not demand of us practical application. We like the ivory tower and are planning on living here.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, but we get into academic ... Rick, we get into academic conversations all the time and it is amazing how spiritually difficult listening can just really test your soul. So I'll jump in. I'll do one. Then we'll just kind of alternate. Okay?
Rick Langer: Sounds good to me.
Tim Muehlhoff: So one of my favorite quotes from I Beg To Differ, here it is. A Baptist said of an Episcopalian, "I cannot hear you because of what I expect you to say. I cannot hear you because of what I expect you to say." Prejudgment.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, I do prejudgment all the time. I listen to a person and I teach for our apologetics program, right? Which is great. I love apologetics and our program's top-notch, but when you read a lot of books about what the other side says and potential responses to the other side, right? This is what you say to an atheist or relativist, a postmodern, right? You get locked and loaded with I know where you're going with this. I know where you're going with this. I've read three books on your response to the problem of evil or why you think God can't exist. So when you're speaking, I cut you off because I literally have heard this five times.
Tim Muehlhoff: C.S. Lewis said this. He was a literary critic. Many people don't realize that. He said that one of the shames of people is that they won't read a book a second time because of the response, "Well I've already read it." So when a person's speaking, I literally will go, "Oh my gosh. I've read a book on that and they address this relativistic issue. I now know exactly what I'm going to say you because I've heard your argument five times before," but that's the honor part of the Book of Proverbs. No, listen to it again and the nuance of it. No one argument's the same and everybody shares it with different background. So understand the background. The Book of Proverbs says, "A man's thoughts are like deep waters. Surface them." Right? So prejudgment's a huge one for me.
Rick Langer: Let me just run with this. I'm just unpacking this mentally in terms of what you were talking about relative to apologetics because I'm also a fan of apologetics. My PhD is in philosophy. I've spent a lot of time having these philosophical, intellectual, theological arguments, debates, or discussions with people. It's interesting what you're saying. For all of the value of that like most things, it's a double-edged sword. So there's a downside in the sense that you feel like you know exactly what to say to this person because you fit them into the particular category of an atheist or a relativist or a communist or whatever their ism is and you know how to respond to that, and you end up responding to a generic label as opposed to an individual person. You don't even hear their concern. You don't even listen to what they're really saying. We, in effect, weaponize our people to think that way by trying to equip people to address all these things. That, again, double-edged sword. There's a great benefit to thinking through those things, but the reciprocal danger is that we end up not listening.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and let me give you an example of that. I was sharing with a friend of mine who came out and said, "Yeah, I just need you to know I reject Christianity. I just reject the ethics of Christianity." I was like, "Oh, okay. She's obviously just talking about the Canaanite problem. How does God treat the Canaanites in the Old Testament? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." So I started to launch into some stuff and she eventually goes, "No, no, no. You see, when I was growing up, I was confused by all the money in my church was going to missions when women were hurting here in the United States." I just go-
Rick Langer: It wasn't the Canaanites after all.
Tim Muehlhoff: You know what? I'll be honest with you. Part of me was disappointed.
Rick Langer: Because you were ready to go on the Canaanites.
Tim Muehlhoff: Dang it. I was ready to go. I have outlined this. I have an acrostic. I'm ready to go, but to me, prejudgment is, "Oh, I know exactly why you're that political party. I know exactly why you support this. I know exactly why you do this." And we just cannot prejudge people. So let me give you another illustration real quick and then I want to hear what yours is.
Tim Muehlhoff: So my friends and I were in college. We're going to go get some shoes, some athletic shoes. It was a huge deal, buy one, get one half off. So we're thinking about, "Okay, you buy this and I'll pay for the half off, blah, blah, blah." So as we're walking in, I stop as if a force field has stopped me. I can not walk into the store. My friends go right in of course and they come back out and they say, "Dude, what's up?" I said, "I can't go in the store." "Why?" I look off to my side. There's one man holding a picket sign saying unfair wages, union.
Rick Langer: In front of the shoe store?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, just one guy. That was it. He caught my eye. I'm just like, "Dude, I can't. I can't cross the guy's picket line." Now, imagine if they would have prejudged me right then and said, "Tim, okay. Let's talk about unions, the fairness and ethics of unions. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom." I said, "No, no, no. Guys, you don't get it. My dad was union. My dad's a factory worker at General Motors. They went on strike three times. We had nothing. I'd wake up in the morning and there'd be milk, bread, and lunch meat and that got us through the week and it came from the union."
Rick Langer: Like on the doorstep?
Tim Muehlhoff: On the doorstep.
Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I remember opening in East Detroit and there is, from the union, food because the strike went on for months. My dad looked at me in the eye and he said, "You never cross another man's picket line." So guess what? My friends could have prejudged me and said, "Oh, this is all about fair wages and the ethics of unions." I'm saying, "Dude, it's not. It's about getting milk and my dad telling me never to do it." See how we just completely missed?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And it's interesting because in that case, it isn't necessarily an argument for or against unions. You're just reporting the fact that your life experience is such that you couldn't hardly bring yourself to see it another way apart from some wild act of imagination. So
Tim Muehlhoff: So the Harvard Negotiation Project says the biggest mistake we make ... And when Harvard Negotiation Project says that, you just kind of stop and listen almost like the Winsome Conviction Podcast.
Rick Langer: Yeah, a lot like that.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. They said the biggest mistake we make is we only trade conclusions. We don't share how we arrived at the conclusion.
Rick Langer: And so we stop listening because we don't like the conclusion and we don't take the time to find out how you got there, why you got there.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. This had nothing to do with unions and it had nothing to do with the Canaanite problem. It had everything to do ... By the way, both were deeply personal experiences. So to me, prejudgment is a huge one that we kind of fall into. More educated we are, I think the quicker we are to fall prey to this one.
Rick Langer: Okay. Let me pick up a slightly different thing that I know works in my life to keep me from listening. This is, again, a little bit of autobiographical report here because I feel it frequently. That's the problem of what we might call covert definitions. These are like conflicting definitions. Sometimes people just define things differently and so you end up having this argument that's really about the definition, not about the argument. A covert definition is similar, but what's happening is our definition is kind of hidden within our community of discourse.
Rick Langer: In other words, we have a batch of people that we talk to all the time, we use a particular word with a rich and robust transparently obvious meaning to us, but people who are not part of our community of discourse do not use the word that way and can't imagine because they have their own way of using the word that's significantly different. They can't imagine how we could possibly say the things we say, but what's hiding behind it is that we both have kind of covert, hidden, community-dependent definitions. So let me, again, unpack this in terms of what does this actually look.
Tim Muehlhoff: Good because I kind of zoned out for a little bit.
Rick Langer: Yeah, I was thinking-
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm only going to use that joke once. That's it. Go. Go.
Rick Langer: To take an example of this, very important one in this case in our contemporary context, definitions of words like racist or white supremacist. You want to set me off, call me a racist. Perhaps this is a little bit sensitivity because my dad grew up in Nazi Germany and his mom was Jewish. Let me just give you the short story. It didn't end well. Okay? So I get touchy about racism and accusations of racism and when someone just says, "Hey, Rick. You're a racist," you can get a rise out of me that way. Interestingly enough, let me read a definition of racism. This actually comes from Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility, which is very common, and big, widely read today. I remember reading one of the chapters in the book and having this reaction while reading, and the reason I bring it up for the not listening is as soon as I see the words, I don't want to keep reading or if I do, I keep reading in the argumentative mode.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Oh, that's good.
Rick Langer: In other words, I'm just not listening, but here's the definition that she gives. "Similarly, racism, like sexism and other forms of oppression, occurs when a racial group's prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control." Then she goes on to unpack this a little more. "People of color may also hold prejudice and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social and institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism. The impact of their prejudice on whites is only temporary and contextual."
Rick Langer: So notice what she has done is defined racism purposely and explicitly, which I want to give a person permission to do that. They can use words in different ways. Just make sure you've signaled your terms. Well in effect, that is what's happening here and pointing out that it is different, not that the sentiment inside the individual is so different, but rather that one group of people are part of the predominant culture that then can become dominating culture by embedding their prejudices into laws and things like that. Now, the amount of that that we have in the US and things like that we can certainly have the debate about, but there is a certain logic to that definition of the word racism or racist.
Rick Langer: Now, here's the rub I have noticed even ... So in academic circles, this is very commonly how the word racism is used and when we're talking about institutional racism, this is almost definitional of institutional racism. I don't see any particular need to deny that definition, but the thing that happens all the time is people will drift from that definition of racism and then they will call an individual person a racist. I'm like, "Notice what you've done is you've taken your general definition that is applied purposely to a context where a person can kind of universalize and institutionalize it, and now you're suddenly throwing that same term on me as an individual."
Rick Langer: So I remember being in a meeting where someone says ... We were talking about how to do education in multicultural sensitivity and talked about, "Well I suggest that we just introduce ourselves as a recovering racist." I'm kind of like I didn't like that phrase and of course I began to shut down in terms of listening to the rest of the talk because I'm like, "Wow, I'm actually familiar with the racism as institutionalized discussion, but when you are telling me to identify myself as, in effect, an individual who is a racist, but a recovering one so I'm okay if indeed you are. If you aren't, well then you better get into recovery, right? And it's very individualized." I'm going, "Wait, that's kind of cheating." So there's great ambiguity. The reason you can play that ambiguous card is because most of us use the word actually to apply to individuals oftentimes even more than to institutions.
Rick Langer: So this makes for very, very foggy discussions, but relevant to our point of the podcast. It shuts me down from listening when I hear those words. By the way, it goes the other way too. So Christians love to talk about being sinners and we don't just apply that word to some nasty guy who just mugged somebody on the corner outside. We apply it to ourselves. I was a pastor in an evangelical church for 20 years. If I stood up in the pulpit and say, "You're sinners and you probably sinned today before you came to church," everyone in the church kind of nods their head and say, "Yup. Yup. That's right." And that's why we need a savior, right? That's why we can't save ourselves. So we're going, "Yeah, of course everyone's a sinner."
Rick Langer: Well welcome to the rest of the world now. When you accuse someone of being a sinner, you're accusing them of being something absolutely appalling. Indeed, it feels a little bit like the way I feel when someone calls me a racist. When people who don't live in any kind of Christian culture, don't follow, read, or appreciate the Bible, have no sense of theology of this sort of a matter, when you just call them a sinner, they react. What's the problem? Covert definitions. Our community has created a very well-formed, often used way of using a word, but communities are different in that usage. When we leap across community and apply that word, what happens? We throw out a word and the other people just stop listening.
Tim Muehlhoff: And you have to know ... So you would have to know a little bit of how is the other community going to interpret my words.
Rick Langer: That's exactly right. I mean the classic, the comical example, this is false cognates in foreign languages. So if I give you a gift, Tim, you'll be happy, say, "Oh, thank you, Rick." Now, if we were in Germany and I gave you a gift, you should have a different response because the word gift in German, there is a German word gift, but it's the German word for poison.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh.
Rick Langer: So it's relatively important if you're having that discussion to know is this guy speaking German or is he speaking English? Because in one case, I accept. In the other case, I reject. It's actually really important to know the difference.
Tim Muehlhoff: And let me apply what you're saying, Rick. My Master's thesis was opening the gay Christian dialogue. So I actually found three individuals at UNC Chapel Hill self-identified as conservative Christian and three individuals who self-identify as being part of the gay community. Okay? So they all came together to have conversations about things, right? The Christians kick into this very common phrase that we use all the time within closed doors. God hates the sinner.
Rick Langer: Hates the sin, but loves the sinner.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, yeah. He hates the sin, but loves the sinner. Okay? So they used it in like one of the first meetings. Later, every participant kept a journal. Okay? So I actually have their real-time thoughts. All three participants from the gay community, "I hate that phrase. You might as well say, God loves you, but hates your face."
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And it was deeply offensive. Now, the three Christians were saying it because they thought this is a loving way for me to be able to address a lifestyle that I think is outside the bounds of scripture. Right? So they were actually saying it as this is going to be a great way to start it. The other three participants said, "You couldn't have picked a worse way to start it."
Rick Langer: And that was the moment that those other participants stopped listening, I presume.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, totally.
Rick Langer: Totally lose it because you've used that phrase and you're gone for the rest of it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yup. Yup. So listen, we're talking about listening. We're talking about obstacles to listening and the importance of it. This is found throughout all of scripture and we're not doing a very good job of it today. So Rick, I say let's do another podcast.
Rick Langer: All right. Let's do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let's tackle it.
Rick Langer: There's there's more we could listen to, isn't there?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well I know that you have more.
Rick Langer: I have more.
Tim Muehlhoff: I've kind of exhausted. I'm-
Rick Langer: I'll step in in your moment of need, Tim, and cover for you. You just listen.
Tim Muehlhoff: So listen, thank you for joining us, the important topic of listening. Please check out our website, winsomeconviction.com. You'll find resources there, blogs, articles, things that I think you'll find useful, some great interviews, upcoming events from the Winsome Conviction Project, but also check out our podcast, continue to tell friends about it. They can find it on Spotify, wherever they listen to their favorite podcast. So Rick, I propose when we come back, we do listening part two.
Rick Langer: That sounds great.