At the end of a Eucharistic service, having exchanged the Peace and shared Communion, my neighbour turned to me and said 'I don't really listen to what you say, because I don't agree with you.'
I have to say, I was stunned. How is it that one person can be so dismissive of another? Clearly, I had failed to communicate with him, and what he wanted to communicate to me, was that he disdained my opinion. As a preacher and teacher I had failed.
I spent some time thinking about what bolsters communication, what enables us to understand one another. It struck me that communication's key attribute is something like hospitality. As the speaker, or preacher, or teacher, I have to invite my hearers into a space -a space where I am the host, but where they are free to be themselves. I have to make it welcoming, accessible and comfortable enough for them to stay. And the hearer has to accept my invitation.
What seems important for communication to take place is 'commonality', having some things in common. We don't need to agree with each other, indeed many of the best social events are sparked by different standpoints. My quick list of things on which commonality might rest includes the following:
Speaking the same language is clearly important. A preacher can construct a shared narrative and experience by using a narrative style - re-telling part of the story, for example, if the sermon is based on a Gospel reading. Equally, there needs to be shared understanding, which does not mean agreeing about what is said, but agreeing that the speaker has a right to say it, and that what they say is worthy of consideration.
More intractable difficulties arise in the areas of respect and value. If, as a preacher, I do not respect my hearers enough to think about how what I say might affect them, or I do not value their experiences enough to include them in some way in my words, then I am not being hospitable. In fact I am being so inhospitable that I am removing them from the space of the sermon.
These attributes seem also to be the ones that prevent hearers from hearing. Often lack of value or respect might be based on unconscious bias. When a young person stands to speak, there will be those who wonder 'what can they teach me?' When a person of a different nationality preaches in English, others might question 'why they can't speak English more clearly'. And when a women teaches or preaches, a man, and even a woman, might be resistant to learning, because they appear to occupy a space traditionally reserved for men.
And so, in the end, I wonder whether the real barrier to communication is a lack of respect for the other person, a lack of value placed upon them.
In the words of Steven Covey, both speaker and listener must 'seek first to understand.'