Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To listen

My wife reminds me from time to time that my job is not always to fix things. Sometimes it's to listen.

I thought of that reminder when I read "We come over, and sit" by Aaron R. at Mormon Matters yesterday.

Sometimes when we visit our bishop, we do so seeking counsel, seeking The Answer to our question, and sometimes the bishop can deliver. After all, he has certain gifts and authority by virtue of his calling. Often a wise bishop will, however, just listen.

It took some effort on my part to learn to listen when I was a bishop. Not that I could not listen when someone spoke. I even did well at reflective listening, that is repeating back what someone had said to me to confirm my understanding. But I was, initially at least, subject to my own distaste for silence. I felt a need to fill the gaps in a conversation, and sometimes I'd fill them with my own voice.

My first time as bishop I served in South America, speaking Spanish (not my native language, and not my mission language, either). My stake president counseled that a bishop should spend less than 30% of an interview talking, and the rest of the time he should be praying for inspiration so that when he spoke what he said would be useful. That was good counsel. And it was necessary for me, except my prayer was often that I would understand and be understood.

Fortunately the members of my ward were patient and understanding with me. They helped me with my Spanish skills. They patiently repeated themselves if I did not understand, and were noticeably relieved when they finally felt I did understand.

During another assignment as bishop I had a friend who had a significant issue. The issue doesn't matter. We talked about it a number of times. On one occasion he asked me on the phone if I were speaking as his friend or his bishop. Without thinking about the question or about him, I answered that I spoke as his bishop. As I hung up the phone I knew I had not said the right thing. I finished some other business at the church and then drove the half hour to his home where I found him sullen and not very willing to visit.

We sat in his living room in silence for some time. Finally I said, "I am your friend, too, you know. And I care about what happens to you." More silence. And then he finally began to speak. To share what he was feeling. To share his fears and concerns. To tell his side of the story. He spoke and I listened for about an hour. I had little to offer him except a listening ear. In the end, not much changed, except he knew I had listened to him. And I had learned an important lesson.

When I got home later that day, I found an email, written by him between my phone call and my visit. It said, "A friend would have listened. A friend would have cared about how I felt." And he was right.

As I think back on this experience, I am grateful for the spiritual nudge to go and see him. And to listen.


  1. I wish more people had that spiritual nudge.

    We're in the middle of an extremely difficult family situation right now, where a family member is choosing to act out on feelings of rage, and, I think, insecurity with tantrums, lies, and, worst of all, violence. This person feels that, by people not giving into their demands (which involve, among other things, requests for large amounts of money) that they are being "disrespected". To this person, "respect" and "giving me what I want" are synonymous. It's quickly becoming a very scary, very dangerous situation.

    This is an extreme example, but one thing I've learned in my own life--both by trying to deal with this person, and by other, less upsetting, life experiences--is that, almost always, we need to listen when it's actually the hardest for us to listen. Although our current troubles really bear no resemblance to day-to-day reality, for us or for anyone else, they have provided me with, among other things, a good opportunity to think about what it means to listen, the difference between listening and agreeing, and the true nature of respect.

  2. I wish I understood where the "give me what I want or I'll say you don't respect me" attitude comes from. I know folks like that, too, and they drive me batty.

    Whatever happened to earning someone else's respect?

  3. I wonder that, too. All the time. I take for granted a lot of what I value most, in how I was raised. Less so, now, as I've learned more about how other people are raised, and live.

    The only answer I've ever been able to come up with is self esteem. People who think the only way to respect them is to give them what they want must really feel bad about themselves. What other explanation is there?