How well do you communicate? Most of us will answer in light of our ability to present our thoughts and ideas in cogent ways. But I would suggest that the finest art of communication in our family life is not expressing our ideas. It is understanding the thoughts and ideas of the other people in the family.
This is a recurring theme of the book of Proverbs. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2). The agenda of a fool in conversation is getting things off his chest. Even when he is not speaking, he is not truly listening. He is simply shaping what he will say next. His next volley in the conversation is not returning the ball you served, but serving a new ball.
We have all been fools in conversation. Years ago, I had a late-night talk with my son. I had something to say. He quickly realized that he would be listening. At the end of my monologue I said: “Well, I am glad we had a chance to talk. I am going to pray with you and go to bed.” Within minutes, he was knocking on my bedroom door: “Dad, you said you were glad we had a good talk. I just wanted to point out that I did not say anything.” I was a fool that night. I could have had a real conversation. I could have asked good questions. Everything I wanted to say could have been said in the context of drawing my son out. Instead, I found no pleasure in understanding him; I was interested only in expressing my own opinion.
A later verse in Proverbs 18 observes, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (v. 13) The fool responds without really hearing, with no careful thought or consideration. Speaking in haste is shameful. When we don’t listen, we disclose a low regard for the other’s words and a high regard for our own.
Parents frequently answer before listening. Your daughter begins to ask a question, but you interrupt her: “I know what you are going to ask. The answer is, ‘No.’”
“But, Dad,” she responds.
“What part of ‘No’ do you not understand?”
“But, Dad, I didn’t even ask my question.”
“You don’t have to ask your question. I’m your dad, I know what you’re going to say before you speak.”
My daughter never walks away from this interchange grateful for a father who can read minds. She feels provoked. She feels powerless in the face of my caprice. I may have even violated the warning of Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.”
Notice the virtue of listening in Proverbs 20:5: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” The goals and motivations of the human heart are not easily discovered. The patience, skill, and ability of an understanding person are required to draw out those deep waters.