Talk Less, Listen More: A Reevaluation of Our Conversational Life

We live in a culture of prescribed opinions. We are so set on our beliefs that we have already decided we do not agree with someone even before they have had a chance to defend themselves. That is like declaring the accused guilty before the trial has even started. These behaviors are not necessarily universal, but they are highly prevalent in our society and need to be addressed.

We are a society of talkers, not listeners. We like to impress our ideas on everyone else, and yet we are unwilling to listen to what others have to say. We have clear ideas about what is wrong and what is right, and we often feel that everyone else should believe the same ideas. Ironically, our culture says that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. In this environment, which undermines the objectivity of truth, it is hard for people to carry on a genuine, intellectual conversation. We allow people to think whatever they want, but woe to those who dare to voice what is not generally accepted. Of course, it is alright to want other people to believe the same things we do, for this is part of having an opinion. Nevertheless, we must be aware that not everyone will agree with us, and we do not have the right to make them.

Unfortunately, people often feel the need to command the conversation in order to get their point across. This urgency can lead to many debates devolving into shouting matches. Often, people get caught up in conversation with one or two of the most active speakers and are not attentive to others around them who may also want to speak. We frequently pass over those who are softer-spoken. Thus only those who talk most and talk loudly are heard. 

For some reason, we have decided that if someone cannot provide an immediate answer to a question challenging their belief, this means that they have no proof for what they are arguing. For example, Person A may believe that Rome is superior to Greece, and Person B, who believes that Greece is superior to Rome, asks how Rome can be superior when it borrowed so many aspects of its culture from the Greeks. Person A might not have an instantaneous response to the question, but that does not mean their belief is wrong. If someone doesn’t have a ready-formed defense to a challenge, it may simply mean that they have never considered that point of view before, or that they process ideas more slowly, or that they want to answer carefully rather than flippantly. We ought to give them time to think it over and formulate a meaningful response. 

Proverbs 27 tells us that “iron sharpens iron.” We can disagree with someone and still respect their views, and it is good for us to wrestle with our own opinions as well. Many of us never truly stop and consider other views or think about why we believe what we believe. In fact, many people are even unwilling to do so. Because many of us place much of our identity in our beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged, we feel that our identity is challenged. Rather than analyze the truth of our beliefs, we would remain ignorant of anything that may disturb our comfortable views. We are constantly afraid of being wrong because we think it will somehow make us a lesser person. As a result, we attempt to build ourselves up by putting down others’ views. Contrary to what society tells us, admitting that we are wrong is not a sign of weakness: it is a sign of wisdom. If we cling to our beliefs even after we have learned reason to believe otherwise, then we are no longer faithful but foolish. We should not challenge people’s opinions just to prove that we are right: we should challenge their views in order to help them become a better person—and to help ourselves.

Furthermore, by taking time to understand the other side of the argument, we often find that there is less contention between our views than we previously thought. Orson Scott Card addresses this in his science fiction novel, Ender’s Game: “In order to defeat your enemy, you must understand them, but when you truly understand your enemy, you often find that you love them.” Perhaps the enemy was never the enemy after all. How many conflicts could we avoid if we truly took this into account?

Conversations are valuable. They are essential to building our relationships, processing new ideas, and examining what we believe and why we believe it. To benefit from our conversations, we must be willing to learn. We need to listen to what someone actually says, not what we think they are saying or expect them to say. Instead, consider what the other person has said: genuinely think about it. If and when we respond, we should do it with evidence of our own instead of being that person who is “triggered” or making a straw man argument. When we do not listen, our conversations lose all meaning, becoming one-sided speeches like the sophists. Listening allows us to better understand and therefore better connect with the people around us. As we grow in understanding, we grow in wisdom and discernment, better able to identify and hold onto the truths we encounter in conversation.

This is especially important for us as students. Throughout the coming years, our ideas will develop into more concrete beliefs; however, we are still in the early developing stages of our lives. If we fire pottery too fast, the fire will burn off the water inside the clay, causing it to expand and explode. If the clay is allowed to cure more slowly, it will become stronger and capable of serving the purpose it was created for. In the same way, our thoughts are still fragile and in the process of hardening. We ought not cripple ourselves by solidifying our thoughts before they have had a chance to mature. Life is a never-ending learning process, so we must take advantage of this time to listen and learn. We must let iron sharpen iron. We must listen––really listen––to what others have to say, and when we do, our conversations will shape us into human beings better equipped to exemplify truth to the world. 

Kiri Forrester is a freshman studying English.

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