“I said I wanted to talk. I did not mean I wanted to listen.” And thus, we have completely lost the meaning of conversation. The word’s origin is from a 1500s meaning, which was “to live with.” It was also the legal term for sexual intercourse. Thus, conversation was to engage in a give and take, a knowing and understanding of the other. That means it is two-sided, a dialogue, which is much more than just what I have to say.
The two skills needed for conversation are, first, deep listening (hearing what is real about the other) and, secondly, finding your voice (expressing what is real about you). Both are significant. If I never express the real me, you’ll never know me. If I refuse to hear you or only listen superficially, I’ll never know you. Our relationship will never be intimate. Face-t0-face conversation builds community in a way that text-to-talk never can. To hear the heart takes much more than words because to develop conversation that is caring, I have to hear beyond the words and listen for the expression of the heart, which takes place in tone of voice and body language.
Whether in listening or speaking, we all need to learn to be more intentional and confident when engaging in conversation. It takes initiative to enter deep places in which God can lead and reach us through our community conversations. It takes courage to listen to others with whom we do not agree, to hear those we don’t understand. It takes a surety of self to allow someone to be different than me and not have to change them to conform to my views.
Conversation becomes a personal discipline when I engage deeply and it becomes a spiritual discipline when I keep God in the center of it – when I listen for His movement, His Spirit in myself and in you. It is a discipline because it begins with love: the love for God which allows me to love others enough to hear them. It allows me to love others enough to tell them the truth. It allows me to love others without judging them by my filters, which means to see the other person through God’s eyes. I may need help learning to listen to a difficult person or my enemy. I may need help with my beloved family, for whether I would love them for my sake or theirs, I would miss the opportunity to love them for God’s sake.
Some of the skills needed for God-centered conversation are not new to most. To be a good listener, we know to listen with our agenda aside, to ask for more of their story, to listen to the emotions behind the words, even to attend to their agenda. It is a discipline to honor and acknowledge another’s point of view. There are other skills, though, we neglect in listening: to pray, to be open and open to change, to be willing to hear a person all the way, to desire what God wants, to be willing to learn, to intend a good result of the conversation.
Even the skills of saying our part, our words and idea-expressions may, at first, be obvious: tell the truth, start with “I” statements, be clear, distinguish between fact and emotion. If there is a desire for action from another, be specific with action and timeline. Could there be others? I return to prayer – let’s make it the first and best action we take before the words come out of the mouth. Ask God to lead to explain without complaining and to express results with God in mind. Don’t minimize your story or point of view any more than the other person’s.
An unusual or less thought about part of conversation is the silence between the words. What is being said that the words are not telling? What is the tone of voice, the body language saying? What if we sat in silence with each other to give space for ideas to grow, to give space for hearts to hear. It is a discipline to let silence speak, too.
Realize that in basic conversation (not in teaching or persuasion), we hear to know each other, identify with each other and join with each other, even when we have differences. Community grows when we can hear another person’s heart. Conversation builds community when we can invite more to the table, more people and more ideas.
Many of the recorded conversations of Jesus with people took place in “their” space, where he met them. He met Peter by the lake where his livelihood was, the woman at the well where sustenance was, the Pharisees in the temple where their duty lay, the cripple at the pool in a supposed place of healing. Jesus didn’t very often go for “neutral.” He met people in the public square and in their homes. People are more comfortable there.
Jesus often did not leave them there, though. He knew how to lead them through conversation through the facts to their thoughts and opinions, to identify their deep desires, and through their crises to discussions of the sacred. He listened. He asked questions. He pointed to healing. He pointed to God.
It is truly a discipline to engage in the knowing search of another person, which is conversation’s goal. It is a discipline to reveal our own truths and lies. It is a greater discipline to let a healing Savior to be in the center of all conversations so that the greater community can be built.
And what if our conversation with each other told the truth about the kind of conversation we have with the Lord of the Universe? How well we listen to each other may indicate how well we listen to God. How much truth we tell to each other may indicate how much truth we tell God. How much we connect and community-build with each other may tell the greatest truth of how well we are connected with the Triune God, who is, most of all, Community.