Posts Tagged listening

The critical importance of listening evaluatively – The Christian Citizen

Rev. John Zehring

May 27, 2021

When I taught public speaking at a university as an adjunct professor, each student was required to deliver different types of speeches. They started with informational speeches, moved to special occasion speeches, and then were required to deliver a persuasive speech.

As an experiment, I made the students an offer (they had to connect with me beforehand to prearrange for this plot): I would increase their grade by one level if they delivered a persuasive speech so compelling that no classmate detected that the position for which they advocated was the opposite of what they personally believed. For example, a student who held that nuclear power plants are poisonous and should be replaced with alternative energy production would attempt to convince her listeners that we should loosen regulation and increase the number of nuclear energy plants. A number took up the challenge, and many succeeded at persuading their listeners into accepting the position opposite of their real belief. This raised another challenge for listeners: how do we know what to believe? How do we learn to listen evaluatively?

Consider the information wars of the past few years and how critically important it is for you and me to grow in our ability to listen evaluatively. The past four years seem to have sprung forth with fountains of misinformation, bent truths, lies, and a distortion of the facts. Some would say the former President of the United States himself generated lies and half-truths whenever his lips moved, along with his ever-changing press secretaries, his lawyers, senators like Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Ron Johnson, representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene, governors like Ron DeSantis, and, of course, Fox News. Others would impugn the credibility of President Biden, Vice President Harris, senators like Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, representatives like Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, of course, The Rachel Maddow Show. Who to believe?

Thinking evaluatively applies as well to our faith and religious leaders. Go to church on one side of the street and you’ll learn that the Pope will not allow priests to bless same-sex unions, because those unions are “illicit,” and hear those proclaiming the opinion that God “cannot bless sin.” Walk across the street to worship at a church with a rainbow flag flying proudly to welcome all – no exceptions – to be a guest at the Lord’s table. The pastor themself might be lesbian or gay. One theology views Jesus standing at the door with arms folded – including some, excluding others. The other views Jesus standing at an open door with arms outstretched and palms up, offering an extravagant welcome to all. All. No exceptions. Who to believe?

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “The function of education… is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” You and I are needed, perhaps more than any time in our memory, to become advocates for, champions of, teachers of, and practitioners of critical thinking and evaluative listening.

The essence of critical thinking centers not on answering questions but on questioning answers:  probing, analyzing, and evaluating. Thinking critically is not the same thing as criticism. It means not simply accepting information at face value in a non-evaluating way. It means questioning the source’s motives, agenda, purpose, slant, or bias. Listening evaluatively acknowledges that we all have a bias – you, me, and even the writers of the gospels and the epistles. It asks what does the speaker or writer have to gain from you accepting their data? Whose interest do they have at heart?

Critical thinking means considering other sources. If you go sailing and see a water tank, you might guess where you are. If you see both a tank and a steeple, you can triangulate and know your location with precision. Thinking evaluatively encourages you to check a second or third source to help you take your bearings with greater accuracy.

How do we know who to believe? Whether a student in a public speaking class, a worshipper wondering about the message from the pulpit, a potential customer weighing a sales pitch, or a citizen considering the truthfulness of a politician speaking on your favored news channel, how can you listen evaluatively and critically to weigh the evidence? With an explosion of information sources bombarding us with data, it becomes indispensable for thinking people to listen evaluatively and to think critically.

Listening evaluatively is the mark of a thinking mind. After the wars of disinformation which we experienced in the past half decade, we must rethink how we listen and how we think. I crave evaluative listening skills for my grandchildren, for my neighbors and friends, for all who sit in the pews, for all who vote, and for all who watch, read, or listen to the news. But I cannot wish it for another until I engage in it myself. So, may I practice what I preach, and may all of us desire to grow in our skills as people who think critically and listen evaluatively.

Critical thinking means holding a healthy skepticism about surveys, polls, and statistics, realizing how data can be manipulated or taken out of context. For example, you can observe a man with one foot in the oven, the other in the refrigerator and assume that statistically he is comfortable. A survey or poll could be found to support almost any position.

Critical thinking looks for evidence. The Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Critical thinking is ready to change its mind if the evidence changes.

Critical thinking does not rest upon what it is told. Galileo was excommunicated for challenging the Church’s view that the sun, planets and stars revolved around the earth, but he was correct and they were not.

Critical thinking, like a detective, looks for what is not said or is not there. In one of Sherlock Holmes’ greatest cases – Silver Blaze – he solved the case when he realized that the silence he observed was the clue to the mystery, for it was the dog that didn’t bark in the night that gave it away. Ask about the data you receive “What is not being said?” What is your newscaster, preacher, sales rep, politician, or advice-giving friend not saying?

Critical thinking receives anecdotes with a grain of salt. Two or three of your friends may have had a bad experience with a restaurant, but that does not make it conclusive that it is a bad restaurant. Two or three dozen of your friends on Facebook may share an opinion, but that is not necessarily an accurate representative of the population. Critical thinking refrains from making judgments about what “people are saying” or “everyone is talking about…”

Listening evaluatively tests its questions with other people, in conversation and dialogue, and welcomes corrections, suggestions, and constructive criticism. It is open to learning, growing, and changing its mind. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “If any man is able to convince me and show me that what I think or do is not right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth, by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”

The word “why” is the most powerful tool in critical thinking’s mental toolbox – not to confront, challenge, or dissuade, but out of curiosity, to know more, to understand basic assumptions, to put in context,       and to evaluate data and analyze its credibility. Weigh information with the questions asked by every reporter: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Listening evaluatively does not jump to conclusions without first allowing a fair hearing of the data. It does not prematurely reject a speaker’s ideas because of assumptions or prejudices about the speaker. It also filters out the sizzle as it zeroes in on the steak – preventing the mind from being swayed by the charismatic twinkle in the eye, humor, or a winsome personality.

Listening evaluatively is the mark of a thinking mind. After the wars of disinformation which we experienced in the past half decade, we must rethink how we listen and how we think. I crave evaluative listening skills for my grandchildren, for my neighbors and friends, for all who sit in the pews, for all who vote, and for all who watch, read, or listen to the news. But I cannot wish it for another until I engage in it myself. So, may I practice what I preach, and may all of us desire to grow in our skills as people who think critically and listen evaluatively.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.

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In a culture of shouting, people of faith must address listening deficit

JONATHAN DAVIS | JANUARY 28, 2019 -BaptistNewsGlobal

Some days I feel like I have very little right to speak. Even as a preacher. Maybe especially as a preacher. I have little right to speak to minorities who have known discrimination and bigotry their whole lives. I have little right to speak to those who are economically disadvantaged and suffering in tangible ways. I have little right to speak to those fleeing violence and persecution in their countries of origin.

I am a straight, white, upper-middle-class, American, Christian man. I need to do more listening. Listening to the brokenhearted. Listening to the poor. Listening to the single mother. Listening to the ostracized. Listening to those wondering where their next meal will come from. Listening to the teen labeled “at risk” by all the adults in his life. Listening to people who will never experience the world beyond their urban community or rural county. Listening to people with differing political opinions and biases than the ones I harbor.

In a polarized world, listening seems a rarity. Everyone is shouting. It’s hard enough to listen to the shouting when it’s my own children (whom I love). Listening to the cacophony of clamorous caterwauling between grownups I’ve never met? I find it vociferously deafening.

How can we listen in a culture of shouting, especially when listening to shouting is so spiritually and emotionally draining? The question is largely rhetorical, because I do not profess to know the answer in full.

“Sermonizing is not a solution to the listening deficit in our culture.”

More and more, I find that friendship and personal relationships are the only way to listen deeply. I try to listen deeply to God’s Spirit when preaching and speaking, but in the moment of preaching, the conversation is vexingly one way. Sermonizing, then, is not a solution to the listening deficit in our culture.

The fact is, different people have different perspectives and experience reality differently. Media coverage of a recent encounter in the nation’s capital between a Native American elder and the Catholic schoolboy attests to this. Nobody wants to hear the other when everyone is ready to shout first. When everybody shouts, nobody is truly heard.

When we fail to listen to the other, we make the mistake of reducing people made in God’s image to foregone conclusions, concise soundbites and imbedded biases intent on demonization. Instead of jumping on every viral video meant to induce outrage, should we not listen first (which may result in thinking before responding)?

I’m afraid we don’t have the patience for listening fully and respectfully. Doing so may require a few days or weeks or even longer. What if the news cycle – which often is more accurately an outrage cycle – passes us by in our listening? Wouldn’t that be a gift?

Of course, listening in the right ways gives our words more power when it is time to speak. Too often the things we say stem from confirmation bias and parroting someone else’s talking points than any deep reflection on our part.

“Listening in the right ways gives our words more power when it is time to speak.”

Understanding the need to listen deeply does not remove the responsibility or burden of speaking. In his famous speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.”

Have any of us paused, or listened long enough, to consider that the Native American elder and the Catholic school boy were both in Washington that day to do (in their own way and according to their own understanding) what King called us all to do? Aside from their encounter with each other, each was there to speak against what they understand to be oppression and to lift up a “voice for the voiceless,” as Oscar Romero said.

In a previous column, I wrote about the challenge of preaching weekly and trying not to lose my voice in the current culture. I’m growing more convinced that it’s only out of listening – and hitting a personal pause button on all the feigned and manufactured social outrage – that I actually have a voice. Whenever I join the chorus of outrage my voice is no longer my own, but that of group-think, confirmation bias, partisan pundits and talking heads.

Failing to speak amid injustice and abuse of power is a sin, to be sure. When we fail to speak we lose our agency, voice and prophetic witness. All the same things happen when we fail to listen.

As a follower of Jesus living in a divided culture, how do you balance listening and speaking?

 

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Tell Your Story. Celebrate National Listening Day

November 25 better known as Black Friday is also National Listening Day. This is a day to tell and record family stories. This gives a great alternative to spending the day or wee small hours of the night in the mall. StoryCorps started the event which has been widely celebrated and appreciated.

I am regretful that when I had the opportunity I did not pay attention to all those family stories freely shared at reunions, funerals, and other get–togethers. The ones I do remember enrich my life.

My friend Bob is writing his memoir. He sometimes reads portions to Carol, Brandy and me. What a treat that has become as he shares details of his life with us. Remember you are not limited by who constitutes family. It can be a group of friends, a church group or a social group as well as actual family members.

Record the stories if possible. Use a voice recorder, a video recorder or pen and paper. We all remember stories. As you remember one bit of information, dozens more will rush in. I recently wrote my spiritual journey, Our Father: Discovering Family, which became a book. The problem quickly became what to leave out instead of what to include. I was overwhelmed by memories.

A very important point is that your story is your story. Your sister, brother, mother, father, aunt or cousin will remember it differently, but then it is their story not your story. Of course you can make factual corrections when necessary. The important thing is to tell the stories and record them. Stories make us who we are. They span generations.

This morning my son asked me, “When did I get my first Lionel Train and where did it come from?” Those questions sent me back down wonderful memory lanes. That train was more than forty-five years ago. Luckily I made voice recording of all those early Christmas mornings to send to the missionary grandparents who were in the Philippines at the time, but they were on a reel to reel tape recorder. I hope that recorder is still in the attic. That quest will bring more memories.

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What Writing a Spiritual Autobiography Taught Me – www.ethicsdaily.com

When I started writing Our Father: Discovering Family, the working title was, Our Father: From Certainty to Faith. I had two questions in mind stemming from an amazing, eye-opening, soul-stretching experience I had at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. How did my spiritual development bring me to this point from where I started life in a small provincial town in South Carolina during the days of racial segregation? The second question was equally daunting. What am I to do with the remaining years of my life?

I discovered that God had a much bigger plan. God wanted to expand my vision as to who is in God’s family. God always has a bigger plan than we have. I am reluctant to put words in God’s mouth, but it is as if he were saying, Mitch, you can’t understand me until you know who is in my family.

In 1998 my new wife and I were in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At 11:00 a.m. the priest for the day announced, “At this time every day we stop and say together the Our Father Prayer.” An amazing thing happened. People from all over the world: white, black, brown, male, female, tall, short, handicapped, able-bodied gay, straight were all praying the Our Father Prayer. For the first time in my life the true meaning of what “Our” means swept over me. I knew at that moment that my life had changed forever and that my faith had taken a quantum leap forward.

The process of prayer, reflection, research and writing lead me to two conclusions. First, I needed to drastically expand my understanding of who composes God’s family and second God had been preparing me all of my life to be a voice for fostering better understanding and communication between Christians and between Christians and the rest of the world. We need a more Christ-like dialogue. Striving to improve Christian communication became my mission for both writing and speaking.

The book is best described as a spiritual autobiography. I grew up in the segregated South where learning about the brotherhood of man wasn’t easy. As a child I could not understand how a church that preached God’s love could turn black people away from its doors. Much later, I struggled through the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and a church split. My late wife, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, challenged all of my provincial ideas in a loving but forceful way. Her death coming just days before Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston and my beloved church was an unimaginable tragedy. One from which I was not sure I could recover, but God provided abundant expressions of love and reassurance.

In 2006 my wife asked me to volunteer to teach creative writing to her students in an inner-city minority middle school. The atmosphere reeked with negativity from both faculty and students. That experience lead me to write a little booklet, Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter. Then I founded the Say Something Nice Day observance now listed in the Chase Calendar of Event. In 2007 because of the rising tide of animosity between Christian groups, I spearheaded the Say Something Nice Sunday Movement celebrated on the first Sunday in June… This movement has gained support from Baptists, Catholics, Disciples, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The book I edited and contributed a chapter to in 2009, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, which brought together leaders from various denominations grew out of these events.

God brought great Christian thinkers into my life through my visits at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State and the many speakers at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptists Church of Charleston: Bill Leonard, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson, Martin Marty, Thomas McKibbens, Arthur Caliandro, Timothy George, John Claypool, Paul Raushenbush and Joan Brown Campbell to name a few. I owe a great debt to my childhood pastor, Rev. Roy R. Gowan. One day he said to me, “Mitchell, God made all of you and that includes your brain. He does not expect you to park it at the door when you come to church.” It took me years to fully grasp what this wonderful man had said to me.

As I researched and wrote, Our Father; Discovering Family, all these isolated events – a career in communication disorders, Sunday school teacher, life-long church and civic volunteer, deacon, writer and speaker, consultant – began to fit together. They revealed to me that God has been leading me step by step to discover meaning and mission in my life. There are no coincidences. God’s Word says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV) It also lead me to understand that the God I had been worshiping all of my life far exceeded anything that I could imagine or comprehend. Insights keep coming. It is an amazing journey.

An Excerpt from Our Father: Discovering Family

London and St. Paul’s Cathedral are light years away from Woodruff, South Carolina and Northside Baptist Church but each is an essential mile marker on a journey – a journey to discover a fuller understanding of who God really is and how I can be more like him.  In the process God revealed a much broader plan for me. He wanted to open my eyes and mind to see who his children are.  It is as if he is saying,” Mitch, you can’t understand me without knowing and loving my children, your sisters and brothers. I am the Father of all.” He is constantly reminding me that I am one of his children and that I belong to a family that is much larger, much more diverse, much more inclusive than I imagined at the start of my journey.

There are no shutouts in God’s family or as Dr. John Hamrick says, “People are not throw-aways.”  We all belong.  Just as my aunt tried to do 50 years ago, someone or some group is always trying to exclude some other group from God’s family for reasons of their own.  It never works.  You and I are members of the family.  We are loved, but we are not the head of the family.  That is the basis of all sin – wanting to take the place of God.  God is the head of the family.  He alone decides who is in and who is out. His greatest desire is that everyone should be a member of his family.  My role as a member of the family is to invite others to join by living a life that is truly reflective of what being a child of God is all about. It is about inclusion, not exclusion.  It is about love not hate. It is about accepting the invitation, “Come and learn of Me.”

For more about Mitch’s books, including Our Father: Discovering Family, click here.

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