The Art of "Radical Listening"



Mom: What’s wrong, Jennifer? You seem upset. What are you feeling?
Jennifer: …Nothing.
Mom: I can tell there’s something wrong. Do you want to talk about it?
Jennifer: …Well, I hate Mr. Abernathy! He’s so rude, I hate going to his class.
Mom: You do? I thought you liked math-what happened to make you feel this way?
Jennifer: I used to like math, now I hate it because of that stupid teacher! He picks on me and I’m not going back.
Mom: What has he done that feels like he’s picking on you?
Jennifer: He calls on me when he can see I don’t understand it yet, or just because he hates me.
Mom: How does that make you feel, when he calls on you like that?
Jennifer: Like I want to quit school and never go back. I don’t care! (crying)
Mom: I can see how hurt you feel. That can make a person feel like giving up.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do!
Mom: Do you need extra help with the math? Or is it that you haven’t been prepared for class?
Jennifer: He just scribbles on the board and expects us to get it. Half the kids are failing. I give up! I hate it and I’m not going back! (runs out of the room, crying and slamming doors).

Now test yourself—as a parent, what would be your next move? Many if not most parents would panic and yell, or argue while following the child, in order to show her where she’s wrong. But Jennifer’s mom knows that this would only make matters worse, so she says nothing so that Jennifer can calm down a bit. If that’s what you would do, you’re on the right track.

Later, Mom knocks on her daughter’s door and asks her if she’d like something to eat or drink. Jennifer responds in a weary voice that she’d skipped lunch and has a headache. Mom gets her a snack, then says, “Eat that and it will help your headache. When you feel better, let’s talk about Mr. Abernathy and figure out how to improve the situation.”

* * *

Jesus’ disciples often said things that were distressing to him. They asked him for special favors, knowing how he felt about that kind of competitive power-grabbing. Feeling rejected and angry, they once asked if Jesus thought it would be a okay if they prayed for God to wipe out a whole town! They often took him literally when he was speaking metaphorically, asking questions that showed they hadn’t really been paying attention, just “didn’t get it”, or both.

Yet, with the exception of one topic--whenever Jesus mentioned the violent death he foresaw for himself, they were afraid to ask what he meant--they felt entirely free to ask or say whatever they were thinking. Think back to all the teachers and bosses you’ve worked under, and ask yourself: How many of those you felt completely comfortable saying whatever was on your mind, asking for whatever you wanted or needed, and asking even “dumb” questions? Probably not too many. Why? Because most people in authority positions think that their job is to tell, not ask; to punish, not guide; to talk, not listen. Hence, they do a pretty bad job of helping those under their supervision grow.

Radical listening is a very Jesus-like method for guiding our children. Jesus listened “radically”, which means that he was open to hearing whatever his disciples had to say. He would listen without judging them negatively, though certainly he felt concerned or distressed by what they were saying. The gospels portray a man who walked long miles with his little band, and sat with them when they needed a rest.

Radical listening is patient, even when what’s being heard tries one’s patience! Radical listening isn’t the same as agreeing, and in certain instances, such as when he heard them arguing over who would be given top honors in the kingdom that Jesus had told them about, he did not respond whatsoever at that time. Using strategic patience, he waited, in these situations, until a good opportunity arose to bring up the issue as a means of teaching a deeper lesson, and without getting people more argumentative or defensive.

Sometimes responding to our child right away, when they first say something worrisome or even rude, is the wrong thing to do because it pulls us into a stressful argument that accomplishes nothing. A better idea in these heated moments is to make an effort to NOT respond, but instead to simply listen and “record” what they’ve said for a future discussion when they’ll be more calm and receptive. Doing this, as Jesus did when he heard the disciples arguing on the road but didn’t mention it until later, will give us time to think of ways to talk to our child in a more positive way.

Radical listening allows us to respond to our child’s opinions, attitudes, thoughts and feelings in ways that will inspire, rather than irritate, enlighten rather than enrage. Especially for older children, teens and young adults, radical listening can make the difference between weak or strong connections between parent and child.

Adapted from "Jesus on Parenting" by Dr. Whitehurst; look for it in book stores this September.

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