I’m Listening (she says in her best Frasier voice)…or Not

The Blog That Speaks: I’m Listening (she says in her best Frasier voice)…or Not

The teacher called it “Show & Tell.” It went something like this:

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

During grade school, prior to any reading, writing, or arithmetic, students were permitted to stand at the front of the whole class and talk. Dare I say that for many of us it was our favorite part of school (next to recess, of course). Twenty-six (or there abouts) pairs of eyes were riveted on us, as we held an audience in the palms of our small hands. In those moments, we had power. We told about our vacation to the Grand Canyon or about a scary incident with our family, or about a new pet or toy that we had recently received (is it any surprise that Show & Tell seemed…well…loooonnnggggger after Christmas break?)

But this grade school experience was just the beginning of my learning about telling.

As I continued in my education, an emphasis on speaking in front of others was a required course during my years in high school, undergrad, and master degree program. I was instructed on how to give impromptu, persuasive, and extemporaneous speeches. I heard how communication was linear in that Person A speaks and Person B listens, and then Person B speaks and Person A listens (referred to as the transmission model).[1] It seemed simple enough. Interestingly, while two elements of communication were mentioned, priority was placed on speaking.

Today, I continue to notice our cultural emphasis on telling in our educational system, even indirectly. For instance, every year, without fail, several students in an online course on pastoral counseling indicate to me that they expect to learn how to tell a congregant how to help resolve his/her presenting problem. Little do they know, the course focuses on listening.

America’s prioritization on speaking should not be a surprise when one considers how part of our nation’s foundation is built on the words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

America’s passion for our freedom to speak, or maybe a better word is tell, appears in our peaceful (and maybe not so peaceful) demonstrations. It emerges loudly on social media, and even more so when social media companies curtail the rights of members to post whatever they want. It surfaces boldly as the press publish stories that are unpopular with the governing body. And, yes, it appears right now in this blog.

Yet, I pause and wonder how our culture would be different today if the First Amendment centered on the freedom to listen.

“But,” you may protest, “between the two, listening is easy. It is the speaking in front of people that is hard.” But is it?

Consider how telling clings to power while listening sets aside a measure of power. The listener gives the floor, so to speak, to the teller. And that, my friends, is challenging. Contrary to common perception, listening is more than simply waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that we can start talking—that is, reclaim our power. Listening is more than just that period of time in which we develop our argument so that we may win as if we are in a competition. It is also more than simply deciphering the sounds of a, e, i, o, u. This implies that listening occurs with a clean slate or within a vacuum so that each of us deciphers identically and easily as to what the other is saying. This does not happen. Allow me to illustrate.

In the episode “Darmok” of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise encounters the specie known as the Tamarians and experiences a conundrum in communication:

Temba, his arms wide.

Shaka, when the walls fell.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

The words are enigmatic. While many of the words are known by the Enterprise crew, the intended meaning eludes them (sort of like reading a book in a doctoral seminar). Frustration levels rise among the crew as misunderstanding becomes king.

The episode concentrates on the discovery of how the Tamarians communicate through images drawn from their own narratives. For instance, the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” means cooperation and/or friendship as it is based on a story of two strangers who separately arrive at the island of Tanagra where they together defeat a threatening beast. The other clauses also evolve from Tamarian narratives so that “Temba, his arms wide” signifies a gift and “Shaka, when the walls fell” indicates failure (sort of like the American slang “bummer”). It is the lack of familiarity with these types of Tamarian cultural stories that becomes a barrier to effective communication, indicating to viewers how listening is more than simply hearing words.

Like the Tamarians, we too employ life stories in communication, although perhaps less directly. Being of the same culture and speaking the same language do not bypass the fact that each of our unique life narratives impacts our listening. Similar to the Tamarians, stories from our culture, region, church, and family inform who we are, shaping how we listen. That is, listening involves the whole being of a person—physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional. I carry within my very being—me— all of my experiences when I am listening to the other. Every experience, be it sorrowful, joyous, traumatic, or victorious, and every relationship, be it good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy, join me as I listen.

In essence, I do not listen to the other alone.

This also means that, like it or not, I am selective in my listening.[2] I choose to whom and to what I will listen and how I will hear them.

Selective listening may occur while I am attending a concert of my favorite band. A drummer in the audience may pay particular attention to the band’s rhythm section while I, who play guitar, center upon the sounds of the band’s acoustic guitar. While a drummer appreciates the skills and sounds of the rhythm section, I may hear it as noise and at times overpowering to the point of irritating.

Selective listening may happen while you are reading this blog. You may tune out some elements of this blog while paying attention to different aspects. As a teacher, I see a similar dynamic when I am grading assignments for an online class as some students read the directions for an assignment one way while other students understand them quite differently.

Listening with our whole being and partaking of selective listening intimates that misunderstanding will also be part and parcel in our listening. For example, when Captain Picard in the episode of “Darmok” is alone on a planet’s surface with the Tamarian captain misunderstanding prevails. As the two captains stare at each other, the Tamarian holds up two knives and throws one to Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Picard perceives that the Tamarian is issuing a challenge to fight him rather than extending to him friendship/cooperation, the very opposite of what the other captain is striving to communicate. It is Picard’s whole being, his experiences, relationships, and influences, that cause him to hear “fight” rather than “friendship.”

Misunderstanding, much to our chagrin, is constitutive of listening. It cannot be avoided. As Lisbeth Lipari comments:

Because misunderstanding reminds us, again and again, that our conversational partners are truly “other” than us; that each of us lives at the center of our own world; that we each arrive independently “on the scene” of communication with different histories, traditions, experiences, and perspectives; that the self is not the world; that perfection is impossible; and that, although human language is infinitely generative, there are important aspects of human existence that are, simply, ineffable.[3]

Misunderstanding cannot be circumvented because I am not you and you are not me (or for you grammarians “you are not I”). Of course, it is tempting to stomp away from or stop the conversation amidst misunderstanding. But, as Lipari notes, perhaps misunderstanding is an opportunity to be summoned “to move with more humility, patience, and generosity than we might have otherwise.”[4] It is a call to invite the other into our lives by moving towards the other, not away. Misunderstanding beckons to us to resist telling (even more loudly, I might add), and welcome the uniqueness of you and the one-of-kind me into the same space.

As one who seeks to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, listening to the other is a way to bear the imago Dei.

If we are desiring to reflect God’s image, it is important to reflect upon orthodoxy’s understanding of who God is (please excuse me as I become a little more theological here). The church holds to a belief in the triune Godhead, in which there is unity and diversity. Within the Trinity, there are three distinct persons who are revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while being one. The Trinity cannot simply be explained as a solitary subject neither can it be referred to as only three divine persons. Instead, the Three dwell in each other, and each one shares personhood, consciousness, and will with the others; this sharing also forms their shared nature, consciousness, and will. Miroslav Volf explains

The one divine person is not only itself, but rather carries within itself also the other divine persons, and only in this indwelling of the other persons within it is it the person it really is . . . In a certain sense, each divine person is the other persons, though is such in its own way.[5]

In each divine person the other two persons mutually indwell, but they do so without each one losing distinctiveness. As Volf comments, this is important because persons who dissolve into each other cannot exist in each other. For instance, the Son is the Son to the extent that the Father and the Spirit indwell him, and the identical type of indwelling pertains to the Father and the Spirit.[6] This mutual interpenetration is seen in Jesus’ words in John 10:38, “that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (cf. John 14:10-11; 17:21). Yet, the Trinity is not a “self-enclosed, exclusive unity” but an open, inviting, and integrating unity. This is indicated in John 17:21 in Jesus’ prayer, “that they will be in us.” We, as other, then are invited to participate in the circular eternal life of the Trinity.

The relationality of God, which is described above, is a way in which we as humans may reflect God’s image, which includes how we listen. I discuss this in the previous blog called Listening: A Sign of the Church:

The Gospel of John speaks about the listening that occurs in the triune Godhead (I am indebted to Theresa Latini for this insight). The Son listens to the Father in that he speaks what the Father tells him (8:26, 28; 12:49; 14:10). Jesus talks of the Father listening to him (11:42). The Spirit listens in that the Spirit does not speak from the Spirit’s own authority, and in the same way, we listen to the Spirit who will speak to us (16:13). Furthermore, we listen to Jesus in that his sheep hear his voice (10:3, 16, 27) and listening to God is a sign we belong to God (8:47).

Listening is fundamental in the life of God. If we are now theologically drawn up into the divine life where persons of the Trinity listen to each other, we too, are to participate in listening to each other who are also within the divine life. And so listening and welcoming become a way that disciples of Jesus may bear the imago Dei in this world. As members of the Trinity listen to each other and as the triune God is open and welcoming to others—that is, to us—so we are beckoned to be welcoming to the other through our listening.

In a divided culture such as ours, may we as the church be known as the listening people as we practice mirroring life in the triune Godhead.

Holy Spirit, help us to listen today so that we may be sensitive to how you are moving in the other, in me, and in the space in between the other and me.


[1] Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), loc. 260, Kindle.

[2] I am drawing from Lipari’s Listening, Thinking, Being, ch. 4.

[3] Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being, loc. 214-215.

[4] Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being, loc. 220.

[5] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209.

[6] Volf, After Our Likeness, 209.

4 thoughts on “I’m Listening (she says in her best Frasier voice)…or Not

  1. As I try to listen through this blog post, I hear an encouragement from the Spirit to work on how I listen when counseling or serving others. Am I listening for what I can tell them or what I can understand and learn from them?

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    1. I too find the self-reflective question that you posed a challenging, ongoing to question that I ask myself…regularly. Thanks for reading/listening and taking the time to comment.

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  2. Such an excellent blog, Pam. Oh me, oh my. I need to improve on my listening…every day. As one who “talks for a living,” I must intentionally strive to listen much more carefully than I do. Again, good words, Pam. You write so well. I love the interjection to the grammarians who would pounce on your selection of “me” over “I.” Blessings to you and Lincoln; love you, lady.

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    1. Bob, thank you so much for taking the time to read this (or maybe you listened to the recording) and comment. I too want to be more aware of how I listen and how I am responding to others. After all, isn’t a part of our listening our self-awareness? Blessing to you and Sherilyn.

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