Who Will Teach Them to Listen Well?



We’ve taught the next generation to be advocates for important causes, but who will teach them to listen well?

gun control protest

The last several days’ news of young people around the country advocating for different gun laws makes me proud, and maybe a little sad. Social media has taught them persuasive argument, a critical skill for advocacy. And perhaps my generation (baby boomers) contributed to that teaching as well. I’m thinking about the civil rights movement, among other significant social movements ushered in by the original discontent generation. My generation railed against “the man”, and had the coolest revolution music ever. We taught how to be advocates for a worthy cause. We invented “sit-ins” and “walk-outs”. This younger generation has learned those skills well. The question now is, who’s going to teach them listening? Where will they learn to listen well to one another?

With over 30 years as a litigation attorney, I have an understanding of advocacy. It’s a powerful tool. But what I have learned in all those years of winning and losing in an adversarial setting is that, in order to find solutions, none of my communication skills matter more than the ability to really listen. The truth is, mere advocates don’t need listening skills. But real problem solvers thrive on them. The problems today’s youth are trying to solve are not going to be solved through advocacy. They’re going to get solved in community with one another, listening well.

Here’s the Biblical take on this premise:

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

My fear is this: who is teaching this young generation the critical skills of deep listening? We live in a culture horribly divided, with louder and louder voices screaming across the chasm at each other. This is politics. This is our justice system. This is our school boards, our homeowners associations, and our little league parents. The question is, how good are any of those models at actually finding productive solutions to our problems?

No, actual productive solutions come NOT from skillful advocacy, but from insightful conversations. Solutions surface from genuine listening and truly understanding the interests which lie beneath positions and agendas. Problems get solved when we treat one another like human beings and grow to understand each other through actual face to face conversation. These are skills you cannot learn on social media, nor in law school nor seminary. These listening skills are not on CSPAN nor anywhere else in politics. And, apparently, we are less and less likely to learn these skills on college campuses as well. So, the questions just kind of hang out there, blowing in the winds of our culture…who will teach them to listen well to one another? Who will teach them to forge meaningful friendships across ideological lines? Who will teach them the art of conversation…of what it means to live in community? Who, indeed.

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