The power in words

Nov. 18, 2012 @ 08:49 AM

How many times a day do we stop and think about conversations we have with people? Do we truly ask ourselves if our words are filled with meaning, or do most people spend their hours of communication simply complaining about mindless things? In our day, when so many tools are available for communicating, are we becoming bad listeners? 

As a teacher and parent, I have observed many young people looking down a lot at machines and cell phones. I worry about the dangers of a generation or two who look down to speak with others instead of in the eyes of another human being. As far as listening goes, I have also walked by many students and heard noise pumping from devices as plain as day. Their music is turned up so loud, the song is playing through their earphones right at me. I worry this generation will have serious physical hearing issues in the future.

I am a fast worker, and I must train and retrain myself to listen more in conversations. We all want to be heard, but it takes a truly special person to stop what they are doing and listen to another human being, make eye contact, hear the “meat” of the conversation, feel empathy, and respond in kind.

A quick review of the four recent national political debates showed all of us the politicians could not do this. A look at many of the news channels and talk shows reveal many of the so-called “movers and shakers” do not have these skills either. So news becomes more noise and, it appears, people are becoming more comfortable burying the other person in facts and data instead of really listening and responding in appropriate and meaningful ways. 

For anyone watching those debates, the art of the sneer, famous fingerpoint gesturing, and simply interrupting someone’s comment or response appear to be the tools for today’s talker. How does good listening even have a chance? Speaking more broadly, how can good communication survive? If you have ever received an extremely vague email, you know exactly what I am talking about.

I believe Jesus, Ben Franklin, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln can help us remember a few things about listening and communicating.

There are many records in scripture where Jesus engaged people around him in both truthful and meaningful ways. He had conversations and listened intently. With the Samaritan woman, he literally “stepped across the cultural and political aisle” and listened.  He regularly answered the disciple’s questions honestly and openly and used the things around him to help illustrate his message.  Whether it be birds or lilies, he made his points clear. No vague emails from this guy.

Washington trained himself, as a matter of morality, not to speak more than absolutely needed. As President of the Constitutional Convention, he rarely spoke. For him, it was more important to observe than to be heard.

Benjamin Franklin is a great example of an awesome communicator.  In conversation, he allowed the other person to finish his thoughts before speaking. Afterward, he would simply say something like, “I hear your points and understand why you feel as you do, but I respectfully disagree.” What a nice way of communicating which avoids the political sneer, the huffing and puffing, and general whining of today’s political communication.

While writing this article, I have had Mr. Lincoln in my mind.  Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and next year marks the 150th anniversary of the speech. Lincoln reminds us to keep things simple and to the point. In 272 words, he reached the people dedicating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He followed the greatest speaker in America on the program. Edward Everett spoke for two hours, and Lincoln’s simple and framed words stretched farther and higher in two minutes. Everett told him so.

Lincoln debated Stephen Douglass for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858. Both men talked for at least an hour in their series of seven debates. Then, the other gentlemen would offer a rebuttal which lasted for about the same time. They had to hear each other’s points and concerns so to address them during their “air time” in front of listeners.

The “art of speaking” is truly an art. Words have great influence and power. It takes great courage to use them efficiently and purposefully. Yet, it also takes courage to listen to the words of others and respond appropriately and helpfully.

We must work harder to do a better job of showing young people how to communicate better. The best way to do this is for us to become better talkers and much better listeners.


Brent Tomberlin is co-chair of the Department of Social Studies at South Caldwell High School and an adjunct instructor at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.