I can catch myself multi-tasking when listening … and missing some meanings. Sarah Seefeldt nudges us to lean in to listen well.
Leaning In to Listen Well
By Sarah Seefeldt
I listen to my friend as she tells me about the news report that I cannot understand on my own. I live in Cairo and the news comes tumbling out of the radio in Arabic. We stand in the kitchen and my friend speaks to me in Arabic, choosing words and phrases that are easier for me to understand than those streaming from the reporter. As my friend speaks, I can’t do my usual multi-tasking, like wiping a counter while following the conversation. The words are still too new for me. I have to listen closely, attentive to every word. If I mistake a pronoun, I might end up lost about who we are discussing; if I misunderstand the verb, I might make criminals out of innocent people in my mind. I could find this news report in English but I’m trying to learn Arabic. I want the vocabulary of this new language to stick. I want the sounds and phrases to become familiar to me. I want to understand this language. I lean in.
Learning a new language is hard work. Listening to a new language takes concentration and attention. One small difference in sound can make big difference in meaning. This could be the difference in saying “Feed the dog” and “Eat the dog.”
As I’ve been learning Arabic, I’ve learned that expressions do not often translate directly across languages. For instance, in Egyptian Arabic, you don’t say that the tire on your car is flat - you say that your tire is sleeping. We’ve heard funny stories of the misunderstandings that occur from trying to translate an English expression word for word into Arabic.
The other day I thought about how this relates to listening to others as well. This could be someone from a different country from me or merely someone with a different perspective about an issue in our shared neighborhood. If I assume I know what their expressions mean, I run the risk of misunderstanding them. And not all misunderstandings lead to funny stories.
James 1:19 encourages believers to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” I have often focused on the “slow to anger” part of that verse. However, that’s not all James wants us to focus on. James reminds us that we need to focus on hearing what the other person is saying. He wants us to be quick about it, to make listening the top action. We need to listen first and not worry about what we are going to say in response.
Sometimes, to make sure I really understand the person I’m talking with, I need to stop wiping the counter and lean in. I might need to ask what a particular word means to them, just to make sure I have that definition in mind as I try to understand the sentence. We want to make sure we have heard and understood the other person before we try to answer. Proverbs 18:13 tells us bluntly that “to answer before listening – that is folly and shame.” How many foolish situations and sad misunderstandings have happened when someone has not taken the time to listen?
I’ve also noticed that people tend to be helpful and generous when I stumble through learning Arabic. They appreciate my efforts to attempt to use their language. I think this can be true in other situations, too. I know that I appreciate when a non-parent friend tries to understand my world of parenting four kids. Or when a non-writer friend tries to ask questions about my writing projects. I appreciate that those friends would make the effort to try to enter my world. I see them lean into something they don’t understand to know me better.
I want to love my neighbors the way God loves them, both my Arabic-speaking neighbors and my English-speaking neighbors. I don’t want to cause barriers to friendship because of misunderstandings. When we can lean in to listen closely to one another, we can know each other better. And when we love others by listening with the intention to know them, the door opens for the gospel to bring new life.
Sarah Seefeldt is a writer and speaker from Texas who has been living in Cairo, Egypt with her husband and 4 children for more than 10 years. She writes about motherhood, faith, living overseas, and learning to see God's provision in a life of trust. She has a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Counseling and has enjoyed speaking at women's retreats and parenting seminars. She started a podcast during the pandemic to help parents with short episodes that equip and encourage. She loves encouraging families, reading with her kids, and planning adventures to explore Cairo. You can connect with Sarah and find her writings, podcast, and family blog of Egyptian adventures at www.sarahseefeldt.com.