O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love; –From the “Prayer of St. Francis”
As I’ve continued to think about this idea of “the speech of freedom“, I am convinced that the pursuit of understanding is foundational to this practice. Often we think of free speech as being able to simply express openly and without restraint my ideas, convictions, grievances, preferences, whatever. But I wonder how free are we if no one is listening, no one is understanding what the other says? If that is the case, I am confined to the bubble of my own monologue.
In the prayer attributed to St. Francis, he prays “that I may not so much seek…To be understood as to understand.” As odd as it seems, we may most truly be understood when we have given ourselves to deeply understand the other. It think this works for two reasons.
One, it is often, but not always the case, that when we give another person the gift of really listening to understand them, they will want to return the favor. To have another person enter deeply into my life, to work and work to really understand me, and to convey in words that express back the content and tone of what I’ve said is a rare and beautiful thing, a form of deeply knowing a person.
This deep knowing of understanding the other also helps me to speak to be understood when the time comes for that. Then I am not just expressing what I want say but also trying to connect the things I care about with what the other cares about. I better understand the things they fear, the things they hope for and can be careful not to needlessly arouse their fears nor quench their hopes.
Understanding is not the same as agreeing. In fact, sometimes understanding helps us better understand the nature of our disagreement. Often when we do not listen to understand, we discuss what we think are the points where the other disagrees rather than with what is the actual substance of our disagreement. Sometimes we actually agree on things we thought we disagreed upon! When we’ve worked to understand one another, we are freed to work together from our places of common ground to the places where we disagree.
Tim Muelhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University proposes in his book I Beg To Differ several crucial elements of listening to understand:
- Desire to understand. Do we really desire to engage and understand the other person, allowing time and space to share his or her perspective?
- Questions. If a phrase, term, or idea is not clear, are we asking for clarification? When listening, how often do we achieve listening fidelity [understanding what the person means to convey]?
- Summary statements. After asking for clarification, are we offering summary statements that paraphrase the words of the speaker, making sure to match content and tone?
- Perspective taking. Are we putting ourselves into the perspective of another person to see how we would react if we held the views of the speaker?
- Mindfulness. Are we fully present when listening to others? What internal or external distractions make us lose focus?
- Poetic moments. Are we keeping our ears open for a phrase that surfaces a person’s passion or deep convictions? (p. 101)
It just may be that the most important element of “the speech of freedom” isn’t really speech at all but rather the effort to really listen to understand that conveys I want for the other what I want for myself: to be understood. It is then that monologue can become true dialogue and we are freed from the misunderstandings that prevent us from seeking the flourishing of even those we most deeply differ with.