By Charlene Epp, Glennon Heights Mennonite Church, member of the Dialogue Resource Team
In a hermeneutics course in seminary a professor had the class divide into two groups, each group being assigned to a topic representing theological diversity within the church. Each half of the class then divided according to a position of favoring or opposing the theological statement made on the topic, with strong encouragement by the professor for individuals to purposefully take the position one did not personally hold on the topic. We were to present a convincing and researched position to the other opposing part of group. To give a convincing presentation on an uncomfortable position required considerable curiosity and deep understanding. This exercise continues to serve as an instructive model for approaching better understanding of others whose ideas are held firmly, and represent a differing perspective than my own.
In the context of relationships, we face opportunities to better understand another’s point of view. There are many degrees of doing this, all of which have their place for use. Some examples include: reflective listening where there are patterned phrases such as “I hear you saying …”; active listening, where there is an element of duplicating something another person says; selective listening where only parts of what the other is saying are heard, often the parts with which we agree; empathic listening which takes us to a deeper place of seeking to understand the other.
It can be easier to listen to another in order to be heard, than to listen in order to understand what the other is saying. Reading our own autobiography through other’s experience and filtering everything through our own paradigm mistakes introspection for observation. Listening with the intent to understand, to really understand, means getting inside another’s frame of reference, to be able to see the world the way they see it. This process is not about agreement, but rather the attempt to fully understand the other, both emotionally and intellectually.
Gaining more accurate data to work with when another is communicating includes avoiding assumptions about the reality in the other’s head and heart. Engaging in this way calls for character qualities such as reverence, humility, courage, patience, respect. It means giving the other psychological air, to be able to breathe into a safe space and move towards the listener.
It takes time to understand in this manner. It requires a deep, inner security to be opened up to another’s world of emotions and intellect. It means allowing one’s self to be influenced by what we hear from the other. This makes us vulnerable, at risk to find out our “right” way may not be “right”. And there may be another way that can unfold as both the listener and the speaker move into that creative space of understanding.
What opportunities have you embraced to better, more deeply understand someone else?