Understanding: A Habit of the Heart -Habit 5: Seek first to Understand and then to be Understood

Nehemiah 7: 1-5, 66-73 and 3 John 5-8

(The music from Mister Rogers plays)

Does that music bring a smile to your face? Perhaps it brings back memories of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with younger siblings, or children, or both! It was on the air from 1968-2001 bringing caring, laughter and honest conversation to children and parents for many years. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children that our feelings are okay. That we are all special, just the way we are. And how to care about people who look differently or act differently than we do. It began with his honest curiosity and caring for people. He was a good listener, and wanted to understand others. Mister Rogers taught a lot of us how to listen, understand, and care.

LISTENING is important. It is also something of a lost art. While listening is one of the four primary forms of communication, we all could improve on this skill. “We speak with more than our mouths, We listen with more than our ears.”[i] When we do listen, we learn more and deepen our relationships.

Nehemiah really listens to the concerns of the people all through the story. He listens because he cares – and he needs to understand in order to figure out a solution to the problems. As a result of his listening to the poor in the city, he confronts the officials and demands that they repay interest and give back lands they have taken. As a result of listening to concerns on what Sanballat and Tobias are planning, he arms the people and has half stand watch while the other half build. In the process of listening and finding out what the problems are, he is building trust and relationships with the people.

We are often too ready to jump in with a solution. Marriage counselors point to this tendency as a leading reason for poor communication. The need to jump to a solution impairs our relationships because often we just want to be understood. In our partnerships, jumping to a solution makes the other person feel that they are a failure, that their partner wouldn't have this problem because they would have handled things differently, With our kids we move too quickly to, “When I was your age…” stories as if our story is definitive – instead of listening to what is going on with them. But we ask questions, we learn more and we empower the other person to figure out their own answers.

There are actually 5 POOR listening styles – see if you can remember when you have done any of these. 1. Spacing out – or tuning out. Maybe when someone is talking on the phone about something you really don’t care about. 2. Pretend listening – umhmmm….perhaps when we are going over what we need to do in our heads. 3. Selective listening – I heard you say what was my snack, but I didn’t hear anything about chores. 4. Word listening is listening to the words, but ignoring the body language or emotions being expressed. 5. Self-centered listening – when you hear what is being said from your own point of view. And often we listen just enough to know when we can jump in with what we want to say. Our enthusiasm to help “fix” something or share our experience “overrules our empathy and we fail to listen well.”[ii]

OPTOMETRIST -- Stephen Covey gives the example of an optometrist might respond to a patient complaining that they can’t see well with their glasses with, “Here, try mine,” instead of working on an actual prescription. Just as everyone of us with glasses has a unique prescription, so our situations and stories and unique and ONE SIZE – or MY SIZE won’t fit all.

TURTLE AND SKUNK. Some therapists have described two basic personality types, and we often marry our opposite. TURTLE is the personality that when feeling threatened, tends to pull into itself. SKUNK is different. When it feels threatened, it sprays. The challenge is in how they interact. The more a turtle hides, the more a skunk sprays. And the more a skunk sprays, the more a turtle hides. But notice that listening isn’t happening here. If a turtle hides behind a closed door and a skunk demands to have a conversation – we don’t have a fertile ground for real conversation. Both need to listen differently than their natural behavior suggests.

Genuine Listening or Empathetic Listening is much more focused on the other person. It means paying attention with your eyes, your heart and your ears. Listening to words isn’t enough because only (7%) of communication is the words we use. The rest is how we say words to express our feelings -- tone (40%) and body language (52%) and attending to these will help us better understand what the other person is trying to communicate. This is TRUE listening…listening that brings out the best in ourselves and others. It is listening to UNDERSTAND.

Finding ways to understand is incredibly important. The deepest need of the human heart is a longing to be understood. Understanding connects us at a heart level, where we see and appreciate each other as unique human beings. To accomplish this, we have to move out of our own autobiography and engage deeply with another person. This depth of engagement with another has the capacity to transform our relationships, because through listening to understand, we learn what it is like to walk around in someone else's skin.[iii] Understanding is a posture of the heart. It is a bit risky because in truly listening, open ourselves to new ways of perceiving the world – and new ideas. [iv]

When we understand, we don’t judge. Judging others is a human problem – but more: it is “fundamentally incompatible with authentic Christian faith.” Jesus said that Christians should be known by our love, for how deeply we love – not how deeply we judge.” Love and judgment rarely coexist. If judgment is around, it almost guarantees an absence of love. “You can’t judge someone and love someone at the same time.”[v] Love and help seem to come from understanding – while judgment does not. Understanding is a posture of the heart.

TRAIN. On a fairly full train, a man and his five children got on. The children were noisy and rowdy and the man didn’t seem to notice. The rest of the passengers were getting visibly annoyed, and finally someone said something to the man. “Sir, your children are a bit wild and other people are beginning to get annoyed. Can you speak to them?” The man looked up and saw his children. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t noticed. I guess I should speak to them. We just left the hospital where my wife, their mother died. I wasn’t really paying attention to their behavior.” Enough people overheard his statement that several people in the car reached out to engage the children in conversation and versions of “The alphabet game” until the family reached their stop. Understanding led to kindness rather than judgment. Understanding is a posture of the heart.

Letting go of judgment frees us for understanding and relationship. But it begins with truly listening and understanding each other.

Research shows that if two people in the midst of a conflict take time to really hear each other, that they develop a closer relationship. Listening and understanding enables them to see each other more favorably, even though they still disagree. Psychologist Arthur Aron developed 36 questions to create emotional closeness even with strangers. And in deeply sharing, deeply listening, strangers became friends and one couple fell in love. Understanding is a posture of the heart. If we listen, we learn, we understand, and we deepen our relationships.

(Why it matters) Significant relationships meet our deepest human needs. Good Relationships free us to be more authentically who we are. Strong relationships even free us to explore new possibilities we had previously been afraid to try. Building these authentic relationships takes effort. Caring relationships are also one of the marks of the Body of Christ.

Early Church. In the early church, a secular historian remarked, “Look how they love one another!” We’ve read some passages in the Epistles that indicate that they had a lot of disagreements. But they learned that conflict doesn’t preclude caring for one another.

Significant relationships mean developing real understanding, even when we disagree, even across different assumptions, patterns, or traditions. Caring has to come first. And in this deep level of sharing, we have to become vulnerable. We have to listen with more than our ears. We have to share our stories and dreams and intentionally be vulnerable enough to each other to develop deep relationships. We have to learn to love others, even with their quirks and in their differences.

Seeking first to understand and then to be understood means listening first. Caring first. We can probably all think of a stories or two of times that we had a misunderstanding of expectations in a close relationship that led to hurt. Deeply listening to the other person will help us move past the hurt --- because people who love us do not mean to hurt us. And those conversations deepen the understanding, which deepens the relationships.

Imagine what it would be like if someone writing to us today wrote the words from our Epistle reading this morning: “You meet the needs of your brothers and sisters, even strangers. They speak highly of your love.”[vi] Imagine if we were known for the love we show each other and our community!

In our Mission Statement workshops in February, on the 7th and 21st, we will work towards clarifying our goals and expectations – so that in those times of misunderstanding in the church, there is something to be the compass to help us keep moving forward. There are fewer of those occasions with a Mission Statement that is visited regularly because we tend to act on our principles instead of emotions or circumstances.

The effort it takes is worth it. Significant relationships are worth cultivating because they meet our deepest human needs. And free us to each other and for new possibilities.

In order to have healthy relationships, in order to deepen our relationships, we need strong listening skills.

Listening, truly listening is important to our relationships. The Understanding of the heart can help us deepen our relationships and help us be the Body of Christ for each other. We can let go of Judgement in order to love and help each other. These relationships meet our deepest human needs so that we can be vulnerable to each other and the Spirit of God in the next habit, SYNERGY.

[i] Fred Rogers. [ii] Anita Knight Kuhnley, The Mister Rogers Effect. 42. [iii] Kuhnlet, 43. [iv] Carey Nieuwhof, “5 Ways Judgmental Christians are Killing Your Church.” [v] Nieuwhof. [vi] 3 John 5-8.

Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash