It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore.[1]

I have just learned to run. I know it may seem late; I’m 33. Maybe you knew how to run from an early age but I could never really do it. I don’t mean I’ve been something akin to a bipedal snail – I would play sports and move quickly to get the bus. But my running was always hopeless. It was ungainly and ineffective and I could never seem to do it properly. It wasn’t until last year when I joined an excellent beginner’s running group that I actually learned how you are meant to run well. I don’t know why it was never taught in PE when so much generally useless stuff was (I had to learn how to skip for goodness’ sake – not much use when you need to get a bus). I assume it was because it was generally assumed that everyone knew how to run well and so it didn’t need to be taught. That was, of course, nonsense. Everyone knew a bit. But most of us didn’t know how to do it effectively.

I think something similar is happening with the ability to talk to each other.

Nearly everyone knows how to say things to another person. That isn’t talking to someone.

Talking to someone requires that we are able to engage with one another and come away understanding what each other thinks.

This may seem obvious. I don’t mean to try to teach my grandmother to suck eggs (although I confess I never actually saw either of my grandmothers consume an egg in any form so maybe they did need lessons). I wonder, however, whether this is a skill that we assume we have and are actually forgetting.

There are two things that we need to talk to each other well:

  • Being able to listen well; and
  • Being able to speak (or write) well.

Listening Well

The first and most important part of communicating well is being able to listen. That may seem counter-intuitive but it is absolutely true. Before we can have a productive conversation with another person we must be able to listen to what they are saying and understand it. This is much more important than being able to talk and it is far, far harder. Most of my pastoral work involves listening to people and trying to understand what they are saying. When we forget how to listen we end up simply talking at someone rather than talking to or with them.

I am convinced that this is one of the main causes if deepening political, theological and personal division. The vast majority of relationship troubles I have come across result from a failure to listen properly to what the other person is saying and try to understand it before replying.

Learning to listen in this way requires us to do two things that are relatively easy but require practice:

  1. Be engaged. Assume the person we are listening knows something that we don’t. At very least they know what they actually think or feel better than we do.
  2. Be charitable. Try to summarise that in a way that they would accept. This requires us to be courteous and charitable towards them even when we vehemently disagree. It also forces us to empathise with them enough to be able to verbalise what they are saying.

This was the real lesson of the kerfuffle over Cathy Newman’s interview with Jordan Peterson. I like some of Cathy’s (I don’t know her but Ms Newman sounds weird in a blog) work and she is usually clear and incisive. I haven’t read Jordan’s (in the interests of equality I’ll avoid Mr Peterson) book and so I don’t know what I think about what he wrote. In this interview, however, the reason she ran into problems was that she didn’t seem able to hear what Jordan was saying or to summarise it in a way that he would agree with. That meant that when she came to speak it was impossible for the conversation to move forward productively.

If we are unable to listen well to the other and understand what others are saying then we can’t engage with them in a productive way.

This is true on Facebook, in marriages, in workplaces, in politics, everywhere.

The first rule of talking well is to listen well.

Speaking well

The second is to speak well. Actually saying what we mean is hard but it is a skill that is worth cultivating. Everyone will have different styles of speech but generally there are some ways to learn how to communicate clearly.

  1. Keep calm. Angry speech is usually unclear speech. It makes us feel better but doesn’t help us to communicate well.
  2. Be precise. When we exaggerate or talk in large generalisations it is very hard to engage with what we’re saying in a helpful way.
  3. Be consistent. In other words, don’t keep changing what we mean by particular phrases – it is very confusing.
  4. Take time. It’s better to take time to explain what we mean by something rather than assuming that others know what we mean by it – what we mean may be radically different from what someone else means. A classic example is ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’, terms which when applied to theology can mean almost anything.

This isn’t a recipe for ending division among peoples or perfectly restoring harmony in relationships; only Jesus can do that. But it would help us disagree in a more productive and less angry way and perhaps find some solutions. And if we can’t re-learn this skill then we’re going to drift further and further apart.

[1] We Don’t Talk Anymore, Alan Tarney © Sony/ATV Music