A certain passage of the Scriptures has been on my mind a lot lately in relation to not only the kinds of things I want to ingrain in my children, but also those I want to embody in my own life.
That passage is James 1:19-21.
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Given the elegant simplicity of that precept – “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” – I am struck by how difficult it is to follow.
Or maybe I am just speaking for myself. Some personalities seem to have an easier time of it.
Take my wife, for instance. Whether she has gained the skill through long, hard practice or came by it naturally, I should ask her sometime.
My personality, however, is as I told Buck Dabill, one of the elders at our little country church. If communication is a car, mine has a better gas pedal than brake. It is easier for me to speak than to restrain myself from speaking.
I will add candidly that this seems to be a family trait on both lines of my ancestry. So I come by it honestly.
Sometimes this is good. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is sometimes convenient. When uncomfortable truth needs spoken, my type is ever-ready and quick on the draw.
When it is time to pause and listen, however, we often blink, fidget, and falter.
Open Your Ears First
This problem has become increasingly apparent to me while observing several little versions of myself running about.
I hear my children interrupt one another, their mother, myself, or others, and I groan inwardly. Some of this is doubtless just them being children. However, a good deal of it is probably also a trait they inherit from me.
Trying to explain the principles of good communication as simply as I could think to, I recently put it this way:
“Open your ears first, then your mouth.”
Yes, yes. That is very tidy and profound. Now if I can just follow my own brilliant advice.
And it occurs to me that my children will have a better idea what I mean if I show them. It is well to explain. Giving hypothetical examples is relatively easy. To give them a practical demonstration would be the best thing of all, however.
As I have explained the thing to them, it has become clearer to me.
“If you listen first, you’ll understand who you’re speaking with. Your audience will also feel they have been heard, and will more likely want to listen to what you have to say too.”
At least they have a positive example of this in their mother.
For a dozen years of marriage, plus however many years I knew her before that, I have witnessed first-hand. When my wife Lauren makes a habit of listening quietly, then contributes a measured phrase or two, people listen.
I may drone on for minutes on-end with little pause. Then she says a few simple words, and everyone remarks in genuine amazement about how insightful she is.
And she is! But a good bit of why she is, and why others recognize that she is, has to do with her excellent listening habits.
By contrast, I recently became frustrated with two adult role models in my children’s lives. They are not patient. Even when the only offense is that children are being children, they are disproportionately short-off. Their listening skills are not good, and they are routinely and unnecessarily severe in the way they communicate.
It galls me.
Off and on, I have been debating confronting them about it. Perhaps I should have already, and I probably shall. Yet that bit Jesus taught about planks and specks has been coming to mind.
Am I short-off? Am I quick to become angry, quick to speak, and slow to listen?
If so, Jesus says I should first remove the plank from my own eye so I can see clearly to help my brother remove the speck from his.
Take note that I do not believe Jesus demands of us perfection before we hold others accountable. If that were the case, the Bible would make little to no sense where God routinely calls only imperfect people to call other sinners to repentance.
Yet it is dawning on me that any potential future confrontation will go better with a greater dose of humility on my part if I first come to terms with my own vulnerability in this regard.
What is more, I may actually have some practical suggestions for how to improve if I go to battle with this problem myself before telling someone else to.
For instance, what if they say I don’t understand?
‘It’s too hard! What else are we supposed to do but snap?’
If I have grappled with this myself, I will be able to sincerely answer that I do understand. It is hard. But where there is a will there will be a way.
On a related note, I dislike watching Fox News. I find it stressful and obnoxious, especially where the commentary shows are concerned. Panelists discussing partisan issues invariably talk over one another. There is little refereeing by the hosts. Indeed, the hosts are usually the worst offenders!
Even where I agree with the opinions, I find myself turned off by the routine rudeness. For this reason, I have watched very little Fox News for several years now.
Fast-forward to parenting my children, and trying to get them to stop interrupting one another in conversation. It is more difficult than I had expected!
Yet as I have explained it to them, it has become clearer to me.
When we interrupt others needlessly, we are telling them they are not respected by or important to us. Or we and our views are more important.
This invariably raises hackles and stirs up strife.
Where I have been in professional and personal settings and someone else has blatantly talked over me, I have been downright livid.
During one particularly hot moment in a conference call a few months ago, the disrespect was so blatant, I actually called an associate out for it in front of several colleagues and my boss.
“I will finish my sentence, Quinn.”
Yet how often am I guilty of the same?
Even where not malicious or angry, when simply excited and distracted, my interrupting others communicates an ugly truth. I am being selfish and putting others beneath me.
In those moments where I interrupt, I want to have attention and my way, and am willing to trample on them to get it. This is not a conversation. Rather, I will be heard. I and my ideas are what really matter. You and yours can stow it.
The Greatest Command
Selfishness begets more selfishness. And when we make a habit of interrupting others, we set a tone for our relationships with them.
On the flip-side, however, we have the power to set just the opposite tone when we listen intently to one another.
I sat my children down on the couch last night after becoming frustrated when I came home from work and they were all talking over one another simultaneously.
In an effort to simplify things so as to be memorable and clear, I told them I had only three basic principles I want them to follow in life.
First, I want them to honor God. That is foremost.
Second, and as part of the first principle, I want them to take care of the people around them, and to be kind to and respectful of others.
Third, I want them to take care of their stuff – to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them.
On these three things, I told them, will ride how successful or not they become in life. Good and evil, wisdom and folly – both spectrums have to do with whether and how well we follow these three principles.
As this year fades and a new one fast approaches, I would not call my goal a resolution in the cliché sense. Yet I am resolving and aspiring to reinforce these things to my children, and to model them myself.
And insofar as taking care of people depends on communicating well with them, I am going to try to obey better what James says about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
As it is written:
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”– Proverbs 15:1 (ESV)