Dialogues of the Deaf
by Charles R. Swindoll
It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. No one can develop freely in this world and find a full life without feeling understood by at least one other person. . . .
Listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as those between couples. They are for the most part dialogues of the deaf.¹
So wrote Dr. Paul Tournier, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist and author. His words convict me. They usually do . . . but these especially. Because they probe at an area of weakness in my own life. Not a glaring weakness; a subtle one. One that I'm able to hide from most folks because I'm often the one who's expected to talk. But some time ago it began to dawn on me that I needed to cultivate a discipline far more difficult than talking . . . and one that required an exceptional amount of skill.
I don't mean just hearing. Not simply smiling and nodding while somebody's mouth is moving. Not merely staying quiet until it's "your turn" to say something. All of us are good at that game—cultivated in the grocery store, local laundromat, or on the front steps of the church building.
Dialogues of the deaf! Sounds come from voice boxes; guttural noises are shaped into words by tongues and lips. But so little is listened to—I mean really taken in. As Samuel Butler once stated: "It takes two people to say a thing—a sayer and a sayee. The one is just as essential to any true saying as the other."²
Illustration: Children. They express their feelings. Deep down in their fragile, inner wells are a multitude of needs, questions, hurts, and longings. Like a tiny bucket, their tongues splash out these things. The busy, insensitive, preoccupied parent, steamrolling through the day, misses many a cue and sails right past choice moments never to be repeated.
Or how about the person we spot without Christ? Have you ever practiced listening evangelism? Unless we're careful we usually unload the goods and go for the scalp. But people bruise easily. Sometimes irreparably. We must take care not to fold, spindle, mutilate, or assault! Sure, the gospel must ultimately be shared, but taking the time to listen patiently and respond calmly is an essential part of the process. I nodded with agreement when I read the admonishment of a rough and ready tycoon as he began the meeting with: "Now listen slowly!"
Check out Christ with the woman at the well (John 4). He could have blown her away with an endless barrage of verbal artillery. He didn't. He genuinely listened when she spoke; He "listened slowly." He read the lines of anxiety on her face and felt the weight of guilt in her heart. As she talked, He peered deeply into the well of her soul. It wasn't long before she found herself completely open, yet not once did she feel forced or needlessly embarrassed. His secret? He listened. He studied every word, each expression. Even the tone of her voice.
What does it take? Several things. Rare qualities. Like caring. Time. Unselfishness. Concentration. Holding the other person in high esteem. Sensitivity. Tolerance. Patience. Self-control. And—perhaps most of all—allowing room for silence while the other person is thinking and trying to get the words out. Wise is the listener who doesn't feel compelled to fill up all the blank spaces with verbiage.
Solomon said it clearly in Proverbs 20:12:
The hearing ear and the seeing eye,
The LORD has made both of them.
Two ears. Two eyes. Only one mouth. Maybe that should tell us something. I challenge you to join me in becoming a better listener. With your mate. Your friends. Your kids. Your boss. Your teacher. Your pupils. Your clients. Your fellow Christians as well as those who need to meet Christ.
If those who battle with blindness need Seeing Eye dogs, we can be certain that those who struggle through dialogues of the deaf need Hearing Ear friends.
1. Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other (Atlanta: John Knox, 1967), 8.
2. Samuel Butler, "The Art of Listening," The Royal Bank of Canada Monthly Letter 60, no. 1 (1979), 2.
Excerpted from Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life, Copyright © 1983 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by arrangement with Zondervan Publishing House.