Here’s a joke that was passed on to me by a friend.
A woman goes to the doctor, worried about her husband’s temper.
The doctor asks: “What’s the problem?
The woman says: “Doctor, I don’t know what to do. Every day my husband seems to lose his temper for no reason, and it scares me.”
The Doctor says: “I have a cure for that. When it seems that your husband is getting angry, just take a glass of water and start swishing it in your mouth. Just swish and swish but don’t swallow it until he either leaves the room or goes to bed and falls asleep.”
Two weeks later the woman comes back to the doctor, looking fresh and reborn.
The woman says: “Doctor that was a brilliant idea! Every time my husband started losing it, I swished with water. I swished and swished, and he calmed right down! How does a glass of water do that?”
The Doctor says: “The water itself does nothing. It’s keeping your mouth shut that does the trick….”
I learned something in my vocational transition from being a pastor to writing for the Review. Preachers are paid to talk. Reporters are paid to listen. That’s over simplistic, of course, but I’ve been amazed at how my working hard to hear not just the words of the people I’m interviewing but also their meaning seems to make them trust me.
Frequently, I don’t agree with what people are telling me, but the fact that it’s not my job to insert my opinion into a news article forces me to listen carefully. When I do speak it is to ask them to clarify something they said or to go into more depth. My job is to “get them right” and not to say what I think. My experience tells me that most people don’t want to be flattered. They simply want to be understood.
The joke my friend sent conveys the wisdom that saying nothing can often prevent a tense situation from escalating. Another joke goes, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Silence, however, is not exactly what I’m advocating. What I’m pushing for is an attitude adjustment, that in our verbal exchanges our first priority is to understand what the other person really means. The opposite happens sometimes when I’m arguing about something with a friend. What I do is while they are talking, I’m formulating my response rather than really listening to what they mean. In other words, my goal is to win the argument rather than to understand my friend and thereby strengthen the relationship.
Many of my friends—the good ones anyway—don’t really expect me to agree with them all the time. What they expect is for me to respect them enough to work hard at understanding their points of view before I tell them mine. That’s more than keeping my mouth shut. It includes giving them some sign that I really have been listening like “hmm, I never thought of it that way” or “I agree with your first point but not your conclusion” or “tell me more so I understand what you mean.”
We frame too many of our verbal transactions as debates to win rather than mutually beneficial exchanges. It happens in all our relationships—our marriages, friendships, bar room discussions about sports, condo association meetings, exchanges with the political opposition, people from religious traditions different than our own.
My definition of fanatics is people who care more about being right and winning than they care about relationships.
Next time we feel a tense situation brewing, let’s take a drink of water and swish it around in our mouth for a little while if it prevents us from flying off the handle. But then let’s swallow the water along with our egos and speak words aimed at understanding. If we do that consistently and well, there’s a better chance that the people we’re talking with will listen to us.
This is critically important in a village like ours, the most diverse town among its neighbors; in a country where politicians talk past instead of to each other.
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.