Not what I thought I said.

During the last few weeks, I’ve had the strange experience of feeling as though someone else is talking through me.  No, don’t run for your DSM-IV.  I’m not hallucinating.  It’s just a plain ol’ problem with communication.  Human to human.  We all remember the childhood game of telephone, where you pass a message through a chain of people until it gets back to its original speaker, usually garbled and entirely different in both form and content than when it started.  Let’s call this a game of telephone with only one intermediary – me.  Have you ever had this experience?  You know, the one where you could absolutely swear you’d been clear, that you’d thought out what you had to say, had smartly assessed the information, the conversation, the person with whom you’re speaking, and then… bam… what you said isn’t at all what that person heard?  They repeat back to you what they understood you to say and it’s not only not what you said (or some version of it, translated), but it’s not the message you wanted to send?  Or, worse, it’s exactly what you said, but when repeated sounds entirely unlike the point you were trying to make?

Sometimes, this is a good thing, and I can see relationships being built out of it.  Preaching is like that, I think.  Pastors simply can’t predict exactly which parts of the good news people are going to be prepared to hear that day.  Everyone comes from a different place, a unique context, and fundamentally special background, and this difference creates difference of interpretation.   I preached my senior chapel last Tuesday on 1 John 3 and focused on loving not through word or speech but through truth and action.  I had my message all thought out, I’d planned the service down to the last second, I was prepared.  I knew what I was going to say, how I was going to say it, what I wanted people to hear.  And then… every last person who came up to me afterward to talk about worship heard something different.  I had no control, after all.  And, most strangely, each person’s connection point, each interpretation, was entirely correct.  The words spoken to them were the same, but they all heard different things, each helpful or illuminating or healing (thank you, Holy Spirit) in their own way.  So, what I thought I’d said, indeed had said, meant something different simply by virtue of leaving my mouth and entering the hearts of someone unlike me.

And then, this week, I had two conversations with a friend with whom I’m still negotiating the nature of our friendship.  We’ve both got some stuff to work through with each other, and we’re desperately trying to talk about what it’s like to be in relationship, how we can move into a future friendship that will look the way we want and need it to.  And over and over again, I heard myself explore a thought or feeling, had it repeated back to me, and it came back all mangled.  And this relationship is important to me, so I don’t want to just drop the issue altogether – it’s worth it to keep working on the hard parts.  The two of us have to keep talking, even if (when) we have no idea whether the words we’re saying are being heard as they were intended.  This is, I think, one of the hardest things about being in relationships… this not knowing, never knowing, how we’re being perceived, but having to keep at it, nonetheless.

As I’ve sat thinking about this during the last week, it’s made me wonder about the times I write off the message I’m getting from people.  What are the times when my ability to listen and hear what someone is actually trying to say has been compromised by what I’ve already got going on in my head?  Even actively, intently listening, leaving all the stuff aside that I can about what I already know of a person, what I think about the words they’ve chosen, of their tone, sometimes it’s hard to really hear. And maybe that’s the problem.  Rather than really trying to take all of those things and integrate them, we assume we know better than another person what they are trying to say.  Does that make sense?  On some level, in order to really hear, we have to both take things at face value, without laying on top of them everything we already know, and simultaneously use every bit of contextual information we have in order to understand it.  Meanwhile, if we’re trying to be heard, we have to understand that the other person is trying to do this very thing, on the other end, and be patient with that.  I’m thinking of Jesus’ parables.  “Let those with ears to hear…” Each of us hears something unique, even if there’s a core if elusive message to capture, a central and valuable core to the story.  It’s important, but we bring a lot of ourselves to the table, and it’s hard to hear through that baggage clogging up our air space. This is true in human relationships of all kinds, it’s true when trying to listen for God’s voice, it’s true when sharing a thought or the gospel.  And I think it’s probably good for me to try to remember that, when I get frustrated that I’m neither hearing nor being heard the way I’ve intended.  Perhaps I’m making listening into something more complicated, more difficult, than it actually is.  But I doubt it.



  1. nancydayachauer Said:

    It is always amazing how parishioners hear different things from the same sermon. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit enables people to connect on different levels otherwise a lot of sermons would fall on deaf ears.

    I find that I can deal with the “different hearings” of my sermons better than I can the “different hearings” of my conversations with individuals. How many times have I told my husband that he clearly wasn’t listening to me because he totally didn’t get my point. This communication stuff is hard work and it’s important work. I’m so much better at it than I used to be and yet I fear I’m still not as good at it as I need to be. I guess I can at least be glad that I don’t have to suffer the burden of being perfect!

  2. Don Wallick Said:

    Julia – It was either Buttrick or Craddock who said that what happens between the preacher’s mouth and the parishioner’s ear is called “The Holy Spirit.”

    I have so often had the experience of having folks repeat back to me what they heard and thanking me for it – even though it bears no resemblance to the words I wrote.

    It’s kind of a corollary to another rule: The times I’m not sure I have much to say, I get the most positive feedback and the times I’m sure I’ve got something great to say in a sermon, I’m met mostly with: “meh.”


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