Listening to Ourselves

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Two women, members of the same church, were magnetic opposites socially. People glommed onto the first, surrounding her with chatty enthusiasm. The other stood on the sidelines, accompanied only by glum and silent family members. As their pastor, I wondered what made these women of similar temperament, age, interests, and social status so different conversationally?

Christ has come as the healing Word of God.

I recalled psychologist Elias Porter’s grid for analyzing conversations. He outlines five basic responses we can give to anyone who addresses us:

Evaluate: We can assess and offer judgment.

Instruct: We can tell the person what she should have done or could do.

Support: We can express affirmation and care.

Probe: We can ask questions and draw out other information or feelings.

Understand: We can repeat and summarize things said, showing how we have caught what was said and encourage the person to share more.

We understand these responses practically, even if we don’t think of them theoretically. Suppose you say to me, “I’m really tired today.” I can respond to you in one of these five ways:

“Well, if you didn’t stay out so late at night . . .” (Evaluate)

“You should take better care of yourself.” (Instruct)

“It’s tough to get going when your energy level is down, isn’t it?” (Support)

“Oh? What’s going on? Have you had trouble sleeping?” (Probe)

“Hmm . . . You do look like you are dragging a bit today.” (Understand)

We like to think of ourselves as great listeners and conversationalists, eager and engaging. But most of us, according to researchers, instinctively fall back on “evaluative” and “instructional” responses. Unfortunately those are dialogue killers. Such expressions place us in moral superiority over another, setting that person on the defense.

Less than 20 percent of our responses fall into the last three categories—responses that draw people out and fertilize conversation. The two women in my congregation proved it. Invariably the first sprinkled conversations with, “Wow! That must be tough!” (Support), “Really?! What did you do then?” (Probe), or “I’m with you there . . .” (Understand). The other mostly judged and told.

Which of these two women would you be drawn to if you were having a hard time? More important, how do others find you as a conversationalist? Can you hear yourself?

Test It

I’ve assigned this analysis as an exercise during pre-marriage counseling: “Listen to other married couples you know. Discreetly record their responses to one another on paper. Get five to 10 summaries, then connect your findings to what you observe of each couple’s relational health.”

Of course, many factors contribute to the strength of a marriage. But, invariably, the couples I was counseling came back with new insights about what strengthens and nurtures intimacy—and what language choices drive wedges between people.

We learn our communication skills from our parents and cultural systems. These learned patterns can be harsh and abrasive, like those of the lonely woman in my congregation. Or they can be loving and tender, engaging and encouraging, nurturing spiritual wholesomeness.

The bad news is that we are all prone to sinful isolation and the use of evaluation and instruction as conversational weapons of self-preservation. The good news is that Christ has come as the healing Word of God, opening us to worlds of community and care and shared joy.

Good pastoral care by wise elders and patient friends opened the horizon for the second woman in my early congregational experience. Today, although a few prickly conversational thorns remain, she has blossomed into a supportive, probing, and understanding person of grace.

About the Author

Wayne Brouwer teaches at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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Comments

This is really great practical information! It's so true. While "people skills" come easily to some, they don't to all. I hope many people will read this and pick up a few tips, and hopefully we can all look forward to more of this kind of practical help. Everyone can always keep learning in this department!

I really appreciate your tips and insights into how we can be better at communication skills with one another. Great advice! Thank you!

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