What's Tony Thinking

Senators, Talking Sticks and the Hard Work of Listening


Earlier this week Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) brought out her Masai tribal talking stick to help twenty U.S. senators from both parties listen to each other. Only then were they able to break the dead-lock that had shut down the U.S. Government.

The talking stick practice, in case you’re not familiar with it, goes like this: when you have the talking stick you can talk. Otherwise, your job is to listen. Collins further stipulated that everyone got one turn with the talking stick (at least until everyone had a initial chance). It is basically a gimmick, you might say, that ensures that people take turns. (Shades of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”)

Listening is harder than you thought. Harder than I thought.

Surprise — I have found this to be true with church groups as well. I have developed some ground-rules I use when working with congregations to make our conversations more productive and less frustrating. Last year I wrote a longer piece on this for the Christian Century, (which may behind a paywall, but go ahead and subscribe, the magazine needs your support).

In a nutshell what I ask of people when, say, they are responding to a question in a group (e.g. “Where do you sense God is calling our church to go in the future?”) is that first, when it is your turn to speak, you speak for yourself (not imaginary other people). Second, when it is not your turn to speak, your job is to listen with curiosity and interest. And when someone finishes saying what they have to say you don’t get to comment. In 12-Step groups this is termed, “No Cross-Talk.” You don’t get to say, “I agree with everything (name) said,” and then pass on saying anything yourself. Nor do you get to say, “You’ve got that all wrong. Let me tell you why.” You get to listen and say “thank you.” Period. No cross-talk. Wonderfully freeing.

In my experience of using these ground rules in congregations a couple of things happen. People that talk too much (often older, white males — ouch!) don’t get the chance to take over. People who seldom speak get the chance to say something. And people have the experience of being listened to. All of this can be remarkably grace-filled.

Beyond that, it enlarges the table. Everyone gets a seat and a say. And, to mix my metaphors, it levels the playing field. Everyone has the same opportunity to speak.

Now those might not seem like big-deal things, but apparently they are a big enough deal that they brought the recent U.S. Government shutdown to an end.

Why is listening so difficult? When as a twenty-something I came to a fork in the road between continued graduate school and an academic career on one hand, and church ministry on the other. Part of the reason I chose the latter is that the academic world was sharpening my skills for verbal combat and one-ups-manship, but that I concluded wasn’t making me a better human being.

There are a lot of cultural incentives to be verbally aggressive. We learn to interrupt, to talk-over, to fix somebody, to give advice (whether sought or not), and basically to see this as a form of combat where the goal is to win. Needless to say, not much listening goes on under these circumstances. We hear just enough of what someone else is saying to be off and running in formulating our response/ defense/ correction.

Use of the talking stick and the other techniques I’ve mentioned slows things down. That frustrates some people (sometimes me!) who want to “get on with it,” and “make progress.” But what I’ve noticed is that slowing things down in the early stages of a hard conversation often means you spend less time on the back end, because people are more at peace with the outcome.

A different place in my life where I’ve worked at listening is in preaching. The first job of the preacher, i.m.h.o., is to listen, to listen to the biblical text, to listen for what God may be saying through the Scripture. And it turns out, this isn’t easy. Often when we come to a text (whether biblical or another type of written material) we hear what we assume it says or what we want it to say, but don’t allow the text to speak.

I suspect listening has become a challenge throughout our society because we’re so darn anxious. Anxiety shuts you down. And it prompts you to be defensive and self-justifying. (“Self-justification is the most prevalent source of human error.” H.R. Niebuhr) If churches can be places where people can speak honestly for themselves and listen with interest to others, that could be quite a contribution to our anxious, overwrought society.


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