The Missionary Virtue of Talking Over People
Posted on November 25, 2009
My mother takes listening very seriously. As she sat on the phone during another long pastoral conversation we would mimic her repetitive ‘mmm’ing gleefully. She modelled, and I learnt to listen to people carefully, and respond to what they say. My parents instilled in me the respectful practice of allowing people to say their piece without thinking of the next thing to say or interrupting with my similar, but more interesting, experiences. Listening well is important to me.
Which is why it pains me to say that, yes, missionaries need to talk over people. Regularly. Frequently. With godly vigour and fervour. I’ve been through some soul-searching over this one, people, but the kingdom of God requires rudeness beyond measure, inconsideration like we have never dreamed of. Yes, we need to start interrupting monologues with witty comments and jokes. Brothers and sisters, divert the flow of verbal sewerage into the decontamination plant of conversational purity with well-placed questions. Ah yes, even questions that have nothing to do with the conversation whatsoever. Place a gag in those overworked gums of that child of God, fill that space where they drew breath with a barrage of your own trivial stories…
Having got that mini-sermon out of my system, let me continue. In my neighbourhood, there are many people who cannot stop talking. It seems that once verbal momentum is gained, attempting silence is akin to inhaling while underwater. Some people are just glad to talk to someone who will listen, others have axes to grind, others are nervous, others have stories they wish to repeat now and forever, others want to dominate the situation or haven’t had attention like this in too long. All these are perfectly rational reasons for talking continuously.
So how am I to respond? Being in a neighbourhood where crowded houses, arguments and noise abound, my middle-class nicety of waiting for people to finish talking is a disability. I have to interrupt, I have to verbally counterpunch. If I don’t, I will have a ministry of nods and mmms. There are valid reason for talking over people:
to get the conversation on an open track, because nonstop talking is often a defensive manoeuvre to keep the other person at arm’s length
to teach dialogue, not only conversational but intellectual
to enable the other person to see me as someone having a valuable contribution to their life, not so that my needs can be fulfilled, but that they can look to others for enrichment
nb. To be followed by a post entitled “The Missionary Virtue of Keeping Your Trap Shut”