Two ears, one mouth. Let that simple math guide you

“If you make listening and observation your occupation you will gain much more than you can by talk.” (Robert Baden-Powell)

Some years ago I was a teacher of Religious Education at my Church. Every Monday night, for 90 minutes, I would sit with a class of about 12 members of our Church who were in the 8th grade. We would discuss many topics of faith, exploring important points and helping them to understand what made these things important in their lives. Some of the class was pure instruction, other parts were open discussion.

One year I had a young man in my class who was quite a handful. He had a really hard time staying on point with our discussions, often opting to take us as far off topic as possible. He was something of a class clown, and at times he was just purposely difficult. Our season followed the school year, and it was the dead of winter. We were right in the middle of our time together, and he was tending to get on my last nerve.

One night in class I’d had enough, and asked him to step out into the hall and sit there until the class was done. There were about 15 minutes left. When class finished, I headed back to the Director of Religious Education’s office. My wife was also an instructor and she headed back there as well. It was common for us to debrief some with the director.

As we were sitting there, the mother of this young man stormed into the office with figurative smoke pouring from her ears. She was upset with me, and wanted to give me quite a talking to. She asked me what happened, and in one or two sentences I told her. She then proceeded to go on a tirade. She told me all the things she didn’t like about how our program worked, about how her son was put upon, about how teachers didn’t like him. It went on and on for a good 10 minutes. Throughout, I said nothing, I just listened. The director, my wife and I just let this woman talk.

She was near tears at one point as the protective mother of a child she thought had been wronged. We listened, and she kept going. After a while, without us having said a thing, she started changing her mood. She started admitting that her son was difficult at times, and that she knew that he was hard on us. We continued to listen until she finally was at the point where she agreed with us and how I had handled the situation. As she wiped the final tears from her eyes, she thanked us all, and wished us a great week. And then she left.

We sat for a few minutes in silence ourselves, until the Director piped up and asked “what just happened here?” We chuckled a bit, and then I remembered this principle. I said that we did the only thing we could possibly do, and exactly the thing that she needed us to do. We listened. We didn’t take on a defensive position, we just listened and let her do a great deal – in fact nearly all – of the talking.

Very often when people are upset, what they want most is to be heard and listened to. They want us to hear their issue, and believe that we are listening attentively and caringly.

As Robert Baden-Powell (the founder of the Boy Scouts), understood, when we listen, we learn. And, when we listen, we give the other person the chance to completely say their peace.

The rest of that year went well with that student, and his mom and I had other discussions along the way. She was always cordial and helpful to me, and would clue me in on some things to help me to better instruct her son. All of that happened because I remembered to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. If I had chosen to violate the 10th principle and started to argue with her, all would have been lost. If I had violated the 11th principle and told her that I thought she was wrong and I was right, she’d have dug in deeper. Instead, I let her do the talking, and we ended up reaching an amicable solution.

When faced with a difficult situation where the other person has an intense point of view, it is best to…

Principle 15 – Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

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