Why is listening so difficult? In today’s argument culture, listening is especially difficult, and it often seems as if we have an incapacity to listen. Moreover, embodying qualities of good listening, such as empathy and humility in order to understand another’s perspective, are seen as weak or ignorant of the dangers at hand in the conflicts we face. In this episode, Tim and Rick take up these concerns with communication scholar Quentin Schultze (PhD). Quentin casts a biblical perspective on listening, and the conversation also gets into indicators and traps of poor listening. This is Part 1 of a 2-part conversation on grace-filled communication with Dr. Quentin Schultze.
Quentin Schultze: For the first time in my life, I was starting to love my own mother because I had connected with her in a way that you can only connect by listening to somebody else's heart. And that really taught me early in my own career as a communication professor, not to take listening for granted.
Rick Langer: Hello everybody. And welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Rick Langer and I'm a professor here at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology department, as well as the Co-Director of the Winsome Conviction Project.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm Tim Muehlhoff a Professor of Communication here at Biola University. And I'm also the Co-Director of the Winsome Conviction Project. And one of the great things about being housed in a university like Biola university in La Mirada, California, is that we have access to different scholars, different experts. And when it comes to communication, the great thing about being a communication professor is you get to rub shoulders with some of the best and brightest and most insightful people. And we have a guest today that really, when it comes to communication studies, it is not hyperbole to say that this man literally has written the book on the subject. His name is Quentin Schultze. He has a PhD in communication from The University of Illinois. And he is taught at Calvin and other universities for 40 years before just recently leaving full-time teaching to dedicate more time to writing, speaking, and mentoring. He has written or edited over a dozen books. Some of my favorites are Communicating with Grace and Virtue: Learning to Listen, Speak, Text, and Interact as a Christian. Boy, Rick, we could stop right there. We could stop with that book.
Rick Langer: This is an extremely optimistic book that we can do this for Christian.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. But he's also does a great job with leadership. He has a book called Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking is another one of his great books. He's been interviewed by most major media, such as The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, CNN, CBS, you get the point, Rick. This is a man's who perspective is greatly valued, but his pinnacle came Rick, the height-
Rick Langer: I can't wait for this.
Tim Muehlhoff: The zenith of his career is that he wrote the forward to our book, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World and let me read a quote from that book.
Rick Langer: I can imagine everything else fading in light of that moment.
Tim Muehlhoff: Fading-
Rick Langer: Go ahead.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mean, Wall Street Journal, come on.
Rick Langer: Yeah, seriously.
Tim Muehlhoff: But in the forward to our book, Quentin wrote this, democratic life is founded on open dialogue, including dialogue animated by people's deepest convictions, their faith commitments. Learning how to navigate such potentially explosive discourse is nothing short of learning how to be a productive and responsible citizen. Boy that's well said. Welcome Quentin Schultze.
Quentin Schultze: Hi guys, boy. What a pleasure to be with you? And I'm really looking forward to this podcast.
Tim Muehlhoff: Quentin, we wanted to start off with a softball question, borrowing the language from Deborah Tannen, that today we find ourselves emerge in an argument culture. Where we approach each other in an adversarial frame of mind. Can you just give us your quick take on, how do you think we got to this point? Why did we get to the point where listening and empathy and common ground is seen as capitulation to the other side and not a virtue? How do you think we arrived at this moment where it seems we're losing the ability to communicate with each other?
Quentin Schultze: Well, Tim, that it would seem that's a softball, but it's very complicated. I'll just throw out some things to consider. One is that people are more and more stressed. Since world war II, you can map this out. The stress level among people, adults, and children alike, the number of people that are on antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, everybody's stressed out. And when we're stressed, we're most likely to get into trouble in communicating with others. Become impatient, become nasty, fail to listen. So stress is one thing. Level of work is another. We all feel like we're so busy doing things. Why should we take time to listen to one another? And isn't listening to one another in particular, doesn't it get in the way. A huge cultural change is another fact, most of us fear what's going on in the broader culture, because the change is so rapid and it's in our personal lives, our families, our neighborhoods, our social institutions, the church is under change.
All this change really makes it more difficult for us to engage civilly. And I'll say a little bit about the media on this. Everybody hears about the fact that the social media are a factor in incivility. And of course they are, you get online and look at social media, it's amazing. Particularly with anonymity where people can hide behind things by simply pretending to be somebody else or not indicating who they really are. So that's a factor, but it's also mainstream media, it's cable media, it's radio. Where we have really tribal programming aimed at particular groups designed to self propagandize groups. So you tell people what they want to hear and anything that is not in tune with what the audience wants to hear is seen as a threat and is criticized. So I've gone through some of these items and we could talk about any of them or all of them, but they're all complicated. And they I think have worked together.
Rick Langer: Well. I think that's a great point that we often think that something kind of sudden has happened to us. Where have we gone wrong? I think the last five years have perhaps been particularly alarming for people. But the reality is this is a long time coming that suddenly all this fruit has blossomed. It sounds like we've kind of earned what we've had. So to speak over the course of the last decades.
Quentin Schultze: Yeah. In fact, let me go back even a bit further to Adam and Eve.
Rick Langer: Well, that is a bit further.
Quentin Schultze: Yeah. We're going to go way back here. So it's interesting the pattern with Adam and Eve, so they get into trouble by eating the forbidden fruit and then God comes along and he uses an old Chicago expression. I grew up in Chicago, "what's shaking, what's going on here." And so what do they do? They're hiding, they're covering up, they're putting a mask on, it's sort of the early social media here. They're going to pretend there's somebody else... They think that God doesn't know what's going on or can't see what's going on. So they get some fig leaves and put clothes on and hide behind some bushes, whatever. But God pursues them into the garden, says, "Now look, this is not going to work. I'm going to communicate with you, whether you like it or not here, it's going to happen. And so what happened, tell me what went on here."
And of course what happens is after first trying to hide, they get into blame. So they blame in a sense, one another, they blame the serpent. All of this sort of implied blame of God that somebody else outside of themselves got them into trouble. And I think those two patterns are part of the human conditions. So we hide from one another. We fail to open up to reveal with each other what's going on, including our hurts, our fears, our inconsistencies, even our sins. And then when we're kind of forced into communication, what happens is we blame others for what's going on. And so we see this hiding and blaming throughout the media and throughout social media today.
Rick Langer: I think your point is really well taken. And in terms of moving this all the way back to Adam and even realizing this is just part of the human condition. And as you mentioned, the outset, that seems just extremely hard, among many other things. Simply to give another person the gift of your ears so to speak, to give them your undivided attention. Where do you draw that from? Is this an Adam and Eve thing too? Are there special dynamics about that? Is our culture particularly bad at this? Talk to us a little bit about our seeming incapacity to listen.
Quentin Schultze: We could say, I think Rick and Tim, that listening is a problem for human beings. And then that problem of why we can't listen, takes different forms throughout history and throughout different cultures and even into the present day. So it's a little different. For example, with social media, I like to tell the story of going to a restaurant with my wife for lunch. I think we were in Florida at the time. And there was a group of about six. I think they were probably mid to late high school girls that came in and they sat at a table to have lunch. And in this particular restaurant, you'd pick your food up and then go to a table. So they sat down and they were right in my view and I tend to pay attention to what's going on even in restaurants. It's a sickness that comes with being a communication scholar.
And, I noticed that they stayed of about 45 minutes. They never said a single word to each other. They spent the whole time typing on their phones. Now they could have been texting back and forth with each other at the table. That would've been really weird. But the fact of the matter is that they were out there spreading themselves really thin. So part of what I think makes listening tough today is we've got so many communication devices that are available to us and we're spread very thin and very shallow in our communication. We're constantly just trying to attend to the last message that came in. And we don't think about spending longer periods of time with people to really hear their stories find out what's in their hearts. So I think technologies are a big part of what's going on today to keep us from listening.
But again, with listening, let me cast kind of a biblical perspective on it. It seems to me that it was the ancient Hebrews that really captured listening. They have a great word in Hebrew, yada, Y-A-D-A with the emphasis on that last A, yada. Which means to become intimate with things or to become intimate with reality. And the difference in scripture between the fool and the wise person is the wise person becomes intimate with the way things really are. They know what they're going to talk about before they talk. The fool is the person who moves ahead rather quickly and says a lot. And we could say they text a lot or whatever without listening first. So they don't know reality. They step into things as if they do know, and they get into trouble. Or to put it in New Testament terms that James writes about, which is just so compelling. We tend to be quick to speak and slow to listen. Because we don't at first attend to reality and attending to reality. Yada, becoming intimate with reality takes time. And when we're spread too thin, we don't take the time.
Tim Muehlhoff: Quentin, I love what you're saying. You used the word shallow. It made me think of Nicholas Carr's work. He actually wrote a book called The Shallows, where our technology is making us really bad at what you just described. So think about these Zoom meetings that all of us have become familiar with. We now teach exclusively via Zoom this whole past year, but the chat box people respond immediately. It's almost like I haven't finished my thought or they don't fully understand where I'm going in a lecture. And immediately the chat box is filling up with people not listening, but challenging something that's being said or offering a counter perspective. So Nicholas Carr's point is your point. This technology is making a speak in staccato sentences and listening is just not at a premium today. And I think our technology in some ways is really fueling that. And so we're being adapted by our technology.
Quentin Schultze: Here's a funny story about that. I've got a grandson who's in first grade right now. It's all online. And we started out with him at our house. My wife and I as grandparents, and so we thought we could help out. And we get this going online with Zoom. Within two weeks, the teacher was getting exasperated. This is first grade online. And the kids are hopping into the chat thing, even some of them that can't spell or whatever they're getting in there. And they're just typing all kinds of things back and forth. So I would say to my grandson at the end of his school day "Well, how was school today?" And he started saying, "Oh, they were in the chat room again. And the teacher got mad again." This was day after day after day. So I think there's a kind of parental modeling of how you do this and then the kids pick it up.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that does scare me. I see parents... I mean, it's natural. We cultivate these habits, but you see people with their little kids who are too young even to have their phones or anything to chat. But parents are doing it continuously while the kid's playing on something else. And you can almost see the kid looking, "One day, I'll be older so I can play something like that on my own." And we, we almost cultivate that kind of... And with it, the half attention that comes to listening to someone else while you're texting to another person. Which ends up often being paying attention to neither, as opposed to both.
Quentin Schultze: Just saying on the positive side about listening. Now, if I can go back a few years in my own life. I grew up in a very difficult situation. My father was an alcoholic until he passed away. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. And so it was really a difficult situation to grow up in. Very stressful, very chaotic, very poor communication. I had two siblings, but they were much older and kind of got out of Dodge as soon as they could. And I could never really communicate well with my mother. She was always critical of everything that I seemed to do. And then one day when I was a new Professor of Communication and she was living nearby in another city, I decided to stop by and talk with her. And I don't know where this came from.
I have to assume it came from God, because I have no other explanation. And the outcome is so filled with grace. And so I'm driving to her place to get together with her after school. And the thought occurs to me that I'd never talked with her about what it was like growing up in the depression. And so I get to her place. I knock on the door, she opens it up a little bit to make sure it's me, very fearful. Paranoid schizophrenic and I go inside and sit down at her little kitchen table with her. And I knew she was going to start in on me criticizing about something because that's kind of the paranoia that she lived in, but she didn't right away. And then I thought of what I had thought about in the car. And I said, "Mom, what was it like growing up during the Great Depression?"
And she thought about it a little bit. And then she proceeded to start telling me about what life was like for her and her sisters. And other girls that they took in because their parents couldn't take care of them. And she went on and started crying and it was a moving thing. And I started crying and I realized that for the first time in my life, I was starting to love my own mother because I had connected with her in a way that you can only connect by listening to somebody else's heart. And that really taught me early in my own career as a communication Professor, not to take listening for granted.
Tim Muehlhoff: Quentin, I almost had the exact same story. This is... Talk about a God moment, my grandparents were always critical of my parents, of what they were buying at Christmas or birthdays. They always felt like they were over buying, and we grew up in incredibly modest home. My dad was a factory worker, my mom didn't work. And it was like, "What are they talking about? This is not extravagant." Until one day I had a conversation with my grandmother and they grew up in the Great Depression as well. And they talked about having to make Christmas presents out of scrap pieces of lumber. And so obviously if that's your frame of reference, everything is over spending, unless you're making your own Christmas presents. It was a real breakthrough in understanding my grandpa and grandma coming out of that same era. And so that backstory is so incredibly important to know the context by which people are listening to your story. I think that's incredibly important to get that.
Rick Langer: Well and Quentin, your story about your mom. I mean, it really moved me as you were talking about that. And sometimes I think we hear the command to listen in some way as somehow optional. And I wonder if we wouldn't be better whenever we think about listening to just equate that with loving another person. Because the failure to listen is almost always also a failure to love and the ability to listen seems to almost always convey love.
Quentin Schultze: Yes, it does. And I mentioned the Old Testament, the Hebrew in terms of listening is becoming intimate with reality. And in the New Testament including with Christ, we get a sense and this comes from the Greek too, of listening as being obedient to the way things are. To be obedient to them, another word's, that we listen so well, that the outside shapes us enough that we understand. Literally we stand under, if I can put it that way. It chops out our arrogance, so Christ he comes humble. He comes down to earth as a human being, humble down to the ground, the humus, the dirt. And so to be a great communicator as a great listener is to become obedient, to figuring out what reality is by listening. And in order to do that, we have to bring ourselves down below other people.
So that if our first sense is to judge somebody, to evaluate someone, to dismiss another person, we cannot really stand under them. We're beginning at a point where we're standing above them. So we don't listen to them. We're not really obedient to reality. And it's always struck me that the most amazing thing about Jesus, people will tell me as a communication guy and other Christians will say to me, "You got to listen well, just like Jesus listened." Well, that's easier said than done. Because here is Jesus, the son of God, fully God, fully man able to come all the way down to humus and know exactly what's going on in other people's and hearts. And for us, that's a constant struggle, it's a good one. It is a measure of love, I think Rick. But boy, is it difficult?
Tim Muehlhoff: It reminds me of what the ancient said. He who answers a matter before he hears, it is folly and shame to that person. Let me mention your website site, which is just phenomenal resource it's Quentinschultz.com. And you have great blogs, great videos. It's really a nice resource. And on that, you actually have a section on listening where you state that listening is the most difficult communication skill, because it requires us to climb out of ourselves and into others' perception of reality. Go back to the Great Depression. But then you list seven common signs of poor listening. And I was wondering if I couldn't mention a couple of these and just get your thoughts as I read them. For the first one, judging others too quickly and harshly. Wow. Welcome to the argument culture.
Quentin Schultze: Yeah. Reminds me of a situation that my wife was in when my wife was working in the hospital as a nurse. And she had a young woman, in her late teens come in, who was having some complications and was thinking about aborting a fetus. And my wife looked a little more at the situation and talked with her and so on. And this was the sixth pregnancy, all of the previous ones had been abortions. And my wife, as she tells the story was instantly starting to make some judgements about this girl and about her background and so on. But to make a long story short, as my wife listened to girl's story and the difficulties in her life and this girl's search for love in a very broken world, my wife kind of melted and felt like she wanted to be a mother. Wanted to love this girl, just love her, accept her as she was and love her and see her through. And it was very different from the initial instinct my wife had, which was to think lowly of such a person who would've lived such a life.
Tim Muehlhoff: And which leads to the second one on your list, jumping to premature conclusions, right? Is just, we launch in to... And I can think of some of our listeners right now, Quentin saying, "Listen, what is there to hear, abortion is wrong, period. And so, yeah, there might be a context by which she wants an abortion, but I need to speak the truth, which is that abortion is wrong and you ought not to have it. Why do I need to hear the backstory?"
Quentin Schultze: Yeah. Why listen to any backstory. Well, because the backstory is where we tick a love. The more open we are to someone else and their feelings, not to first judge their feelings, but to empathize with them. As you said earlier, their love begins to blossom. And that's when real discourse is possible. Discourse is not really possible, that is back and forth communication. Without first the opening up, the understanding of where other people are coming from and what they've been through in life.
Rick Langer: We've been talking a little bit and you shared some great stories about your own experience. One of the things I think that happens, sometimes we hear other people sharing stories of learning by doing things that work out successfully. I'm just curious, are there key learning experiences you've had by mistake? In other words, you've done something wrong. You're thought, "Oh, I need to change. I need to grow."
Quentin Schultze: Yeah. Many of them. And of course you want me to tell some of those.
Rick Langer: That was... Just Wondering if they are anywhere particularly Instructive.
Quentin Schultze: Yes, of course. There are things that I've said to students that I regret. Where I came across, I could tell as the too critical or dismissive of students for not having done enough work or not done it in a timely fashion. That was a very typical thing for me in my teaching. So I learned from that a along the way, and I would conclude every one of my college courses the last day with some comments about the fact that I hope that students in the class could forgive me. For times when I did not treat them as God's image bears in the way that I should have. So every class I entered with an apology, because I realized that even if I didn't recognize, let alone remember times when I had offended students along the way that I should know that I had, and an apology was a good way to end the course.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's powerful.
Rick Langer: Well, and it's an interesting reminder, too. I imagine for some of the students. The things you get in on the ground floor and for you, it sounds like you're growing up family situation wasn't a massive pile of affirmation, encouragement and all of that. And it makes it probably hard to have that become your first nature. You kind of have to retrain yourself to do certain things that you would've loved to have been your initial training and experiences by growing up in a home.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me jump in on one and then I'll tell a quick story, Quentin have you respond to it. So number six on your list is seeing reality solely from one's own limited perspective. And so I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, Cru. And we went and visited some of the marines family in Ireland. And one of them was a woman who taught in a university and she was a Christian evolutionist. So we're in the backyard and Quentin, I was a theater major. Okay. I took mime classes. I was not into science. Only thing I knew about evolution is that it was wrong. Okay, that is the only thing I knew. So we're backyard. And I say to her, with all my hubris, I say, "I'm kind of surprised you're an evolutionist because of the faulty spotty fossil record."
Right. That was my trump card. I'm just laying it down right now. Quentin, she asked the most intrusive question. She said, "Like what?" And I was like, "What do you mean like what?" She goes, "Where is it spotty? What are you talking about?" And I said, "Well, the spotty fossil record." And oh, Quentin, she handed me my lunch. And again, I'm not pro evolution, but I knew nothing except my limited bias. And I felt all the hubris to be able to set her straight, a woman who spent her lifetime studying it. And I kind of feel like that's the argument culture today do.
Quentin Schultze: Well. In fact, let me throw this out to you guys, that once we learn to listen first, we will hear amazing stories. And those stories will be opportunities for us to engage and respond. So if you had gone to that woman and said, "Hey, I understand you are a scientist, and you have tracked evolution. Would you tell me a little bit about that? How you got interested in that, and what you find fascinating about that?" And that would start to open it up. I remember a situation where a friend of mine in Michigan here, invited me to dinner with a extremely well known person who is moving toward the end of his life.
Most of your listeners would know who this person is, but for obvious reasons, I'm not going to say so. But the person who invited me to lunch with him, they were close friends said, "Would you come and witness the gospel to him before he passes away?" Now I'm thinking, "This is crazy. I don't know this person. I'm going to witness the gospel to somebody I don't know, at a country club over lunch." At any rate, we go to this country club and we're there and we're having lunch and things are moving along. And I can tell my friend there getting a little bit anxious with me, come on. Because, he's a Christian too and he doesn't courage to share the gospel and so he brings me along.
Rick Langer: And he was buying you lunch for a reason, right? You had a job to do.
Quentin Schultze: Absolutely. I had a job to do, so we're we're going along and going along and, well, it was fall and there was a tree outside the window that was beautiful. A maple tree with orange and red and a little bit of yellow, just spectacular. Like you get in places in the Midwest and the right time of year. And I'm thinking about how am I going to approach this topic? So I asked this gentleman what his feelings were about, afterlife or God, anything like that. And he said, "What God, who's God, he was very dismissive." And I said, "Boy, I understand where you're coming from. There are a lot of religions. It's very confusing. Isn't it?" I said, "And that's been true, be at points in my life too. I wondered what direction to go, what God to believe in and so on, but I stayed the course because..."
And I looked out the window and I said, "Like that tree out there." I said, "I love that tree, and I want to know who created that tree because I don't think any human being could do that." And this gentleman put his fork down on his plate and he looked at me and he said, "I need to think about that." Now of course, some of you listening know that this is one of the classical arguments in favor of God, the existence of things, and the existence of good things in particular. And I was trying to address that as best I could given the situation with a little bit of listening to this person, but not much.
Tim Muehlhoff: And, Quentin that reminds me of John Gottman, who distinguishes between harsh startups and soft startups. My conversation with that Christian evolutionist that is classic harsh startup. I take one of her most cherished beliefs and I go right at it. But, with what I think is a mic drop moment is the fossil record. Where you have a soft startup that opens it up for him to evaluate his perspective. I think that is so important in today's argument culture.
Rick Langer: Quentin, thanks so much for joining us and we're going to be continue this conversation. There's a couple other questions I'd love to get to, and we haven't had a chance to do it on this first episode. So we'll bring you back in for another one, but thank you all for joining us for this episode of the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We'd love to have you be a regular listener. You could subscribe at Spotify or Apple Podcast or wherever you'd like to get your podcast. And we also encourage you to check out the Winsomeconviction.com website for more resources, articles, and information on cultivating convictions, holding them deeply, but conversing with others in ways that honor our differences without dividing communities. That's your really what it's all about. And that's why we're here. So thanks again for joining us.