A Listening Strategy for Keeping Your Cool and Loving Others Well

Blonde woman having tongue in clothespin

One night last week, Jan and I welcomed new friends into our home. We shared a meal with a couple who have served locally as missionaries for twenty-six years among First Nation peoples, especially the Nez Perce Tribe.

As newcomers to the area, we were eager to gain insights from their experience for understanding this special part of rural Idaho’s population.

We quickly learned that a number of complexities accompany building relational bridges with Native Americans. Their painful history and challenging circumstances present significant hurdles.

At one point in the conversation, I heard the most important takeaway for me:

“We’ve learned to count to eight first.”

Before saying anything, especially in more stressful conversations, they’ve discovered that mentally counting to eight before offering any verbal response communicates empathy and a desire to understand, not just be understood.

I then recalled this biblical admonition: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).”

I also felt convicted. Not only do I not use this particular strategy, I typically find myself mentally framing my responses to others before they finish speaking!

The Scriptures counsel repeatedly about this dynamic.

“When words are many transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).

“Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29).

“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).

The Count-to-8-First Strategy benefits relationships in another way.

It loves others well by showing empathy through listening–the deepest form of understanding another person.

The authors of Difficult Conversations explain:

As an empathetic listener, you are on a journey with a direction but no destination. You will never “arrive.” You will never be able to say, “I truly understand you.” We are all too complex for that, and our skills to imagine ourselves into other people’s lives too limited. But in a sense this is good news. Psychologists have found that we are each more interested in knowing that the other person is trying to empathize with us – that they are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and see how we see – than we are in believing that they have actually accomplished that goal. Good listening . . . is profoundly communicative. And struggling to understand communicates the most positive message of all (184).

Next time you find yourself in a tough conversation, keep your cool and try listening empathetically by counting to eight before opening your mouth.

But skip the clothespin!

Question: When have you felt understood well by someone? What did they do?

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