Stereotyping Ourselves to Deaf
Back in seminary, one theologian that my professors and my fellow students, often quote is the WWII pastor-martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His classic, "Life Together" continues to bring home new insights with regards to Christians living together. One of the most striking things Bonhoeffer has written is how Christians demonstrate love by listening to one another. He writes,
"The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, New York: Harper & Row, 1954, 97)
By bringing together listening and loving, one is essentially practicing ministry at its best. In the Hebrew shemah, the word "Hear" can be used synonymously with the word obedience. It is one and the same word. Being obedient and listening well are the two sides of the same coin of love. In my years of facilitating discussion groups, there is something which I find disturbing when it comes to trying to listen well. Stereotyping.
Whenever stereotyping occurs, there is danger in not listening well. In fact, over time, stereotyping can lead to a deafening silence as far as learning to listen to others are concerned. For example, take one brother who has been known to be long-winded. He often speaks in a meandering way, and whenever he speaks, the other members of the group roll their eyes, as if they have heard it all. One shuts his eyes to take a short nap. Another flashes up his cellphone to busy himself with something. Apparently, at that time, anything is more interesting than listening. Pity the facilitator who has to be fair to everyone who speaks. He has to humble himself to paraphrase, to translate, or to guide the discussion back to the main points
In stereotyping, three things essentially happen. Firstly, stereotyping shuts away our personal openness to that person. The potential listener by internal labeling has already sized up that person through pre-judgment. Whether the label is "boring," "long-winded," "leftist," "sports fanatic," "anti-abortion advocate," or whatever, the label shuts one's listening dramatically. When the label is at play, the mind goes away. Listening hardly goes beyond the hearing of mumbles and jumbles, as they are all drowned out by the echoes of stereotyping.
Secondly, stereotyping constricts the sharing from that person to us. It straitjackets the other person's opinions into our already rigid interpretive framework. The human mind has an awesome capacity to manipulate information they receive into an object they perceive or want to perceive. Instead of one letting others speak for themselves, we let our opinions speak for them.
Thirdly, stereotyping imposes old perceptions on new perspectives. This is perhaps the biggest reason why many group members do not grow in understanding one another. The failure to listen well is tied to one's tendency to stereotype the person, what they say, and how they say it. For them, there is nothing new under the same discussion group.
True listening is hard work. Stereotyping is cheap stuff. True listening requires us to be open. Stereotyping automatically close up our listening. True listening is love. Stereotyping is narcissism. True listening is humility. Stereotyping is pride.
Let me share three tips on listening well.
1) Learn to ask questions. Ask in a way that shows genuine desire to understand. By asking questions, people will be encouraged, simply to know that a brother or a sister care enough to move his discussion along.
2) Learn to clarify by paraphrasing what you hear. This is a key skill for all facilitators to learn, and for group members to observe and imitate. By paraphrasing, it gives others a chance to hear what we hear, and to clarify. Clarification remains one of the most important disciplines to avoid misunderstanding.
3) Learn to say less. Our culture is a largely noisy one, thanks also to our normal tendency to hear our voices more than others. Perhaps, if we have been talking a lot, remember that we need to be gracious to let others share too. By letting others talk and we say less, it is one way of putting into practice, that puts others more important than our own opinions.
Failure to listen well is often not because of external factors. It is what is happening inside us that prevents us from true loving by listening. One of the main culprits is stereotyping. If we overuse stereotyping, soon, we will be stereotyping our relationships to deaf.
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