Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which you heard what the person said, but you weren’t really listening to him?
I remember once having a disagreement while driving with my wife in which I calmly explained to her how I thought she was mistaken. I then asked her what she thought of my response. She became startled and said, “I’m sorry! I wasn’t listening, I was thinking of my next argument!” Of course, I have been guilty of doing the same thing to her on a far more frequent basis (sometimes I think she has a Phd. in listening). In fact, this situation happens a lot to Catholics when they get into conversations about apologetic issues. We worry more about what we’re going to say next than we worry about what the other person is saying right now.
Heated conversations are like ping-pong matches where arguments and rebuttals are traded back and forth rapidly, like how a ping-pong ball is batted across a table in less than a second. Sometimes there isn’t a chance to catch your breath when you are exchanging arguments at ping-pong speed. In these situations it’s easy to get frustrated hurt someone else's feelings in a merciless “debate” or “war” for truth. Instead of this approach, our conversations on tough issues should feel more like a game of volleyball.
When a volleyball is served or returned it usually floats through the air for a few seconds before it is hit. The arguments we share with one another should “float” in a similar way (though the occasional spike is acceptable). To achieve this kind of dialogue I recommend pausing to think silently after a person has finished speaking. Then, repeat back to the person a paraphrase of what you heard. This not only reduces tension by slowing down the conversation, but it also provides an opportunity for clarification and the correction of misunderstandings.
A good way to start a paraphrase would be to say, ‘Let me make sure I understand where you’re coming from. You said (insert paraphrase of the argument). Did I understand you correctly?” Psychologist Carl Rogers summarizes listening this way:
Real communication occurs . . . when we listen with understanding. What does this mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to him. To achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about.[i]
Respectful listening also helps when dealing with the kind of person the Christian apologist Greg Koukl calls a steam roller.[ii] These people spew multiple, complex arguments while demanding simple “yes or no” answers. They’re the kind of people who elevate the blood pressure of everyone around them. By not talking and instead listening intently to what the person is saying, you can let the steam roller just run out of steam. When he stops talking simply say, “You’ve given me five arguments to answer (if you’re really good, paraphrase each argument) and I can’t answer them all at once. So which one would you like me to respond to?”
If they continue to interrupt, or are rude and disrespectful, you might end the conversation by saying, “I’m interested in having a real dialogue and I don’t think we can have that with your attitude.” If someone is not willing to listen to you, then you are not obligated to listen to them and you can choose to talk to someone who is more open to hearing the truth instead. Jesus told his own disciples that if a town would not hear their message, they should simply walk away and “shake the dust from their sandals” (Luke 9:5). However, if you have a gracious and open demeanor that is ready to genuinely listen to those who disagree, then you’ll hopefully only shake your sandals at someone very infrequently.