Genuinely listening to each other has become a real challenge. The commonly acknowledged roadblocks to good listening include being distracted, stressed, uninterested, or not curiosity; treating a conversation like a mere exchange of stories; or rehearsing one’s own thoughts rather than attending the words of the speaker. Another obstacle to good listening is the absence of any clear notion of what I am supposed to be doing when I am actually listening. What does listening for the sake of understanding actually look like?
At different points along the way in my education I was introduced to two seemingly contradictory ideas about trying to understand what a speaker is saying. The first piece of sage advice was to evaluate every statement or argument on its own merits regardless of what I know about the person expressing the idea. The second and seemingly opposite piece of advice, admonished me to always consider the source and interpret a speaker’s words in light of the speaker’s character. As I see it, my job as listener is to try to meet the requirements of both of these goals, but with a priority on the second.
The first rule of interpretation is a good way to minimize any prejudice I may have either for or against the ideas based on my thoughts or feelings about the speaker. The meanings of the ideas and validity of the arguments can become manifest on their own. If we consider the first piece of advice only, to the exclusion of the second, there is no way to achieve mutual understanding. Acting on the first rule alone, one pursues an ideal of truth as separate from the minds and contexts in which that truth is expressed. Meanings are in the words themselves, and truths are out there, in other words, in pristine isolation from the minds that entertain them. At best I might be able to understand a dictionary but not a person.
The second rule of interpretation was introduced, as I recall, as a way to avoid being deceived. When I am asked to trust someone, what the person says is less important than his or her character. When I take the source into account, the meaning and truth, the agenda and trustworthiness, of the person are revealed. But the rule has a much wider application. The meanings of texts and validity of arguments are best understood in their concrete contexts. This second rule locates truth squarely in the human mind and heart and pursues the ideal of understanding, not ideas alone, but persons. Understanding persons means understanding each individual’s genetic heritage and physical environment; personal and social history; level of particular experiences, academic training, profession, unique interests, family, etc.; as well as the individual’s major choices and conversions. The second approach is a much fuller account of truth, which exists, as the old sayings has it, in the mind, and goodness exists in things. Consequently, to understand what someone is saying I as a listener must be open to discovering who someone is.