I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
It was my first meeting with my mentor, who I’ll call N., and I was brimming with questions and an eagerness to share my experiences and ideas. Unfortunately, what I had envisioned as a conversation, N. interpreted as a monologue.
He began to talk. And talk. And talk.
Since N. didn’t seem to be asking for my thoughts or pausing for my questions, I tried to interject them: “I’ve had the same experience...” “I was wondering...” “Yes, I agree, but what about...”
It was as if N. never heard me. My interjections, intended as verbal speed bumps, seemed to have the opposite effect: He was picking up steam, talking more loudly and emphatically, barreling over my attempts to speak, and rumbling on with his soliloquy.
Frustrated and perplexed, I resigned myself to being the one-person audience of his lecture. The lyrics of one of my favorite songs had never seen more applicable, “You’ve got the talking down, just not the listening.”
It’s been several years since my mentoring session with N., and I wish I could forget my experience, but I can’t. It’s hard to erase my feelings from that day--frustration, anger, disappointment, powerlessness. It’s difficult to forgive N. for ignoring me, for talking over me. But I wonder if the real reason I can’t forget this incident is because what N. did to me, we, Adventists, sometimes do to others.
Consider a “typical” evangelistic series: Attendees are ushered into the sanctuary, seated in pews on the main floor, while someone on stage gives roughly an hour long lecture. There is no opportunity for audience participation beyond silently filling out a decision card; if there is a q&a time, it has been scripted, the questions submitted and the answerers prepared before hand. Then, the speaker has a closing prayer and the audience is asked to attend another meeting the next evening: same place, same time, same format.
I think we’ve got the talking down, just not the listening.
My point is not to disparage evangelistic effort, but to ask this question: Why are we more comfortable talking than listening? Why do we think people will be converted through monologues rather than through conversation? I can only surmise that our preference for a speaking role is an attempt to avoid the vulnerability and risk that listening and conversation require.
Vulnerability is inherent to listening, we know this. Anyone who has ever listened to the words of a dying loved one, or has listened to their spouse’s point of view during an argument, or has listened to a friend admit they were hurt by something you did, knows the feeling of vulnerability--that breath-catching, pulse-quickening sensation that accompanies new realizations--“I didn’t know that,” “She’s right,” “I can’t believe I said that.”
Likewise, conversations contain a certain risk; you can’t always anticipate what the other person might say or the questions they will pose. Conversation requires on-the-spot thinking, unscripted responses, and the occasional admittance,“I’m not sure.”
In short, vulnerability and risk are the very stuff of which relationships are made. I’m afraid if Adventists aren’t willing to wager those things, if I’m not willing to wager vulnerability and risk, then we are resigning ourselves to being “blaring brass or [a] crashing cymbal.”
I don’t have a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all answer for how to become better listeners and conversationalists. I can only humbly reference my own experiences--which have come about as a result of attending an evangelical graduate school--and my need for further practice.
Last week, during a study-session turned conversation, my friend, Amy, looked at me and said, “Alyssa, sometime I really want to have a conversation about Adventist beliefs with you.” In that moment, I heard snatches of lyrics, “you’ve got the talking down, just not the listening,” and saw myself as the one-person audience of N.’s monologue. Pushing those thoughts to the back of my mind, but with a promise I would not repeat those mistakes, I looked at Amy, smiled, and said, “Sure.”