CLOTH EAR CULTURE
Microsoft carried out research beginning in 2000 on human attention spans. In the time between then and now, the average human attention span has dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. By contrast, a goldfish manages nine seconds. This may represent a new low for humanity. Having the attention span of a goldfish was usually considered an insult. Now it’s a standard of excellence. If we can only listen for eight seconds, what are we missing?
In the epistle of James we are told we should be people who are quick to listen and slow to speak (verse 19).
All of us have to admit that when we’re in conversation with others, we’re imagining what we’re going to say next much of the time. This is especially true in strong social settings, like at meals, in a pub, at a party. We think being witty, having stories, not being boring or a wallflower is a gold standard in community. But it results in countless social encounters where people just talk over one another, with no real connection being formed or community shaped. We simply use what someone else is saying as a springboard for own our opinions and stories – what is termed conversational narcissism.
It does not have to be like this. The next time we’re in a conversation, we could try not to think what we’re going to say next, but take our cue from the words, pauses, tone and body language of the person in front of us. It takes effort to do this, and isn’t easy when we’re feeling tired and where speaking rather than listening would energise us more, but it can produce some amazing results. Conversations can go in a direction we don’t expect and we form a better bond with the other person. We begin to notice things we would normally miss, because our head space is clearer. Resisting the temptation to bring it all back to us is an underrated component of following Jesus.
And perhaps we should be less afraid of silences. Silence is considered a kiss of death in a relationship, unless that relationship is so strong that silence is embedded as a component of it, as is found in families. Good listeners often have a high tolerance for silence and do not break it just because they feel awkward. Allowing silence can draw another person out to say something of real value and significance.
Those who believe in Jesus are called to share their faith with others. Right from the start, just before his ascension, Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples. Many people struggle with this calling. They feel they don’t know their Bibles well enough. They don’t quite know what to say. They fear rejection. All of these are surmountable challenges, but sharing the Gospel usually does not best begin with words, like Peter on the Day of Pentecost. It starts with a listening ear.
When we give deep, focussed attention to what someone else is saying, we can pick up all sorts of clues about their joys and fears; what makes them tick and how they see the world. We never bring the Holy Spirit to another person. He is always, everywhere at work, and it is fascinating to listen out for how this reveals itself in others, including in those who say they have no faith. True evangelism begins by saying nothing at all. In paying attention, we confer respect. And in an era where people find it hard to hear others, a listening Christian, a listening Church, offers the most distinctive service. Most people think you have to pay money to be listened to, perhaps by a therapist or counsellor. Our listening should come free of charge.
Though listening is a neglected priority in life, there comes a time when the listener must speak, because conversation involves two people and to remain quiet all the time is to deprive others of your soul. Sometimes a listener can hide behind their virtue, but in opening out to others, we reveal our own vulnerability. The same is true of evangelism, the sharing of faith. There comes a point when we should, in the Apostle Peter’s words, be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us.
We’ve surely been given two ears but only one mouth for a reason.
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