The lost art of conversation?

In one of the churches where I served as a pastor, a couple whom we had invited to dinner – one of the ways pastors can get to know their flock – wrote in our guest book something to the effect that they had enjoyed getting to know us better. Which was nice, but a little weird. And then, once we thought about it some more, probably nice.

The thing is that most of the conversation had been fairly one way. And it was them who had done most of the talking. Which was fine, really. I know not all pastors operate the same way, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a pastor to listen to his flock. And I guess that while we didn’t really think think these people had learned a huge amount about us, what they were saying was maybe that they had appreciated being allowed to share their stories with us.

Writing in The Times this week (you need a subscription to read the article), Jenni Russell has been talking about a similar experience at a dinner party. Apparently her neighbours at dinner had found their conversation fascinating: but from her recollection of it, it was they who had done practically all of the talking.

Jenni Russell is a journalist and she likes hearing people’s stories. But she suggests that ‘conversations aren’t meant to run along the same lines as interviews. They’re meant to be a reciprocal exchange, in which each of you, out of sheer politeness if not actual curiosity, expresses an interest in the other.’

Apparently it’s not just her. And it’s not just pastors. Apparently it’s all over the place. It’s acute among ‘the social media generation’ (which, if you are over 50 and have a Facebook page, cannot really be restricted to those between twenty and thirty); it can be hard to switch off the pressure to tell everyone how amazing your life is.

A while back I wrote a brief post on the art of listening; I said that the reason some of us find it easier to talk than to listen

… may be that we are not really interested in what someone else has to say (that’s difficult to admit), that we are more interested in having the opportunity to say what we think, or just that we find listening to be hard work. After all, it requires concentration, it requires the discipline to refuse to be distracted or to interrupt, and we need to maintain on our focus on someone else – their story and their situation.

From a biblical point of view I’d like to suggest that Christians ought to be decent listeners. I doubt that God intends us to over-interpret the fact that we have two ears and one mouth, but it seems to me that listening is a way of valuing another person, of considering someone else more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).

Final word to Jenni Russell:

We need to remember that if we’ve been holding a dinner companion enthralled for the last 20 minutes this may not be a tribute to our remarkable social skills. It’s more likely to be a tribute to theirs.

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