Thursday, October 17, 2013

Learning to Listen for the Common Good

When I sit down with couples who are either married or thinking about marriage, one of the first things we tend to work on is the ability to listen attentively to each other. Listening attentively is more difficult than it sounds. Usually, when we are speaking with another person, our brain is preoccupied with what we want to say or accomplish in the conversation. As such, we often barely listen at all to what another person is saying. We catch words or phrases and assume that we know what they mean. “After all,” we think, “haven’t we had this argument a thousand times before!” While we look like we are listening, what we are usually doing is formulating our own response to what we think our spouse or significant other is saying.

Inattentive listening is disastrous for resolving conflict. How can we resolve a conflict with another person if we don’t actually pay attention to their point of view? Even more disconcerting, inattentive listening is devastating for the ultimate welfare of a couple or family. We can only have long term relationships with people we actually know. To know someone, we have to listen to them.

In marital counseling, we practice this by having one partner say out loud what they want or wish the other person would do (or stop doing) and how that would make them feel. The other person then, in his or her own words, repeats back the essence of what the other person is saying without jumping ahead to a response. The point of the exercise is to practice active listening. Active listening seeks to understand before it responds.

The practice sessions can be pretty funny. People have a hard time actually listening to their spouse or fiancé and not jumping to a response. Some remarkable things start to happen when we actually stop and listen to the other person is really saying:
  1. We often find more common ground than we anticipated. 
  2. We often find that what the person really wants is something we are glad to give them.
When we listen to each other in this way, we move from having winners and losers in our relationship to seeking the common good. The common good is a concept that has a rich history in Christian teaching. It is the idea that when society benefits as a whole, its individual parts also benefit. This is why we have public schools and public health programs. It’s why we work together as a city to promote, say, downtown businesses or the park system.

Seeking the common good is rooted not only in logic, but in the biblical story. In the passage we’ll be looking at this weekend, Jeremiah does something incredible, he tells the people who are being taken away into exile to seek the prosperity of Babylon, to pray for their captors, and to wish them well, for when they prosper, so will the exiles (see Jeremiah 29:4-7). Far from looking out only for themselves, the Jewish exiles were to look out for the welfare of their enemies! This is a radical example of seeking the common good.

Lately, in our country, we have been struggling to seek the common good. Instead, we primarily have wanted to seek our own way and our own will in the political process. This is true of Republicans and Democrats. It seems apparent that this is a way that leads to disaster for all of us. Our political opponents aren’t going anywhere, and yet, we have stopped listening to their concerns. In truth, both political parties have important concerns. Finding a solution to the enormous debt our country continues to build is a significant concern, but so is finding a way to make health care accessible to every person in our country.

My guess is that in reading that last sentence many of you have already fast forwarded to your particular party’s talking points. Such limited forms of communication have us like a couple fighting the same fight over and over again – stuck with no hope for moving forward. Perhaps, it’s time to go back to the basics. I don’t know if our politicians will do this, but we sure can. When is the last time you sought out a political opponent and asked them their opinion and then actually listened? Listening isn’t only helpful for seeking the common good, it’s essential!

If you don’t actually know any members of the opposite political party, that might be part of the problem. I’d encourage you to cross the divide by personally getting to know someone who doesn’t vote like you. At the very least, read some articles by thoughtful members of another political persuasion. So long as we are in this only to win it for the people who think like us, we’ll all be losers. When we learn to see our opponents as people with whom we are in this together, like it or not, then we might just have a chance.

If the Jewish exiles could seek the welfare of Babylon, surely we, as the citizens of this country, Democrat and Republican and anything in between, can seek the common good of the place in which we live.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

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