Last night at supper, my husband began telling the kids a story from his recent hunting trip. He said the word “crawl” which made my son think about one of the kids in his jiu jitsu class, so he told us about how she does the army crawl wrong. When he said the word “wrong” it made my daughter think about someone on her team doing the wrong skill at the wrong time, so she told us about that kid. And my husband never finished his turkey story.
Have you been in conversations like that? I often find myself in that kind of toss-up, multi-topic conversation and it drives me crazy. Most of the topics introduced are worthy of a full, in-depth conversation on their own, but all we get is the topic sentence of each paragraph because someone else throws out a new topic sentence, sparked by one random word in the previous topic sentence. None of them are connected by the same idea. The whole conversation is just one big game of word association and it makes my head spin.
Last night it made Clay’s head spin too, and he recognized the selfish root of the issue, so he gave a little Conversation Etiquette 101 course right there at the dinner table. He used an analogy that I thought was quite brilliant. “Think about your school day,” he said. “What would it be like if you started doing reading, and saw a word that had been in your math lesson the day before, so you left reading and went to your math book. Then, reading your math lesson, you saw a word from your spelling list, so you left math and went to work on your spelling words. One of those words reminded you of your history card, so you stopped mid-list and started history. At the end of the day, would you have finished any of your subjects?” They had to admit that he had a point.
I listened to him speaking to the children about how to be good listeners, and I was convicted. I’m not sure how often I am a good listener. It takes intentionality to listen well. We are so self-centered and we naturally relate everything to ourselves. When someone is speaking, all their words enter our minds and immediately run through the filter of “What does this have to do with me?”
Listening, however, should be focused on the person talking. They are trying to communicate something that is important to them. They have a reason for saying what they’re saying, and that reason isn’t to help me think of something I can talk about. Listening well is really about not being selfish. It’s about showing love. Maybe you are bored to tears with what they’re saying; maybe it doesn’t interest you in the slightest. Listening is not about loving the topic. It’s about loving the person.
Sometimes, as was the case at our table last night, one word sparks a thought and we just blurt it out. This is still selfish, with a dash of lack-of-self-control thrown in. If someone is talking and you have a thought to share that’s on topic, wait until they are finished with their thought, then share yours as a way to keep the conversation going. If they say something that reminds you of a completely different topic, however, just hold your thought. Conversations are fluid, and it won’t be long until there will be a break. I once heard that generally speaking, there is a lull in conversation about every seven minutes on average. Seven minutes doesn’t seem too long to wait to have your say.
Kids aren’t the only ones who do this. In fact, the majority of times I remember this happening have been in groups of adults. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been in a group conversation, had a thought to share on the topic being discussed, and never got to share it because the topic changed so quickly. No wonder we feel like so many of our relationships stay surface level. We never let the conversation go beyond one or two sentences. Nothing deep ever gets discussed because we bounce around, giving the stage to every stray thought that enters our minds. Who knows what kind of great conversations we could have if we learned to rein in our thoughts, focus on the speaker and what they are saying instead of what they remind us of, and be quick to listen, slow to speak? Maybe we wouldn’t all feel so lonely if we were better listeners.
This actually one of my pet peeves. I get so frustrated and actually exhausted in groups when this happens. I could preach about it for awhile. I’m thinking today, though, about my own listening skills. When I’m in a conversation, am I listening to what is being said or am I distracted by one word that reminded me of something else? Do I listen to their whole thought, or do I tune them out, already formulating my response to what I think are saying? Am I focused on the other person and what is important to them or am I impatiently biding my time, waiting for my chance to jump in and take over? Am I content if I never get a chance to share my thoughts, or do I forcefully push my way in, as if my thoughts are the most important? If someone else says what I was thinking, am I glad that thought was shared or am I irritated because I wanted to be the one to say it?
These are good questions for all of us to consider, and honestly, I know I have some work to do. I am humbled to think about how selfish I can be in conversation. I pray that I will enter conversations with a mindset of having a good discussion but also showing love to the people talking with me. Word association games are a fun way to pass the time on a van ride, but they don’t make for good meaningful conversation.