half an ear

Our world is full of distractions. We often give more time to the distractions than we do to each other. Daniel Goleman says, “Full attention, so endangered in this age of multitasking, is blunted whenever we split our focus. Self-absorption and preoccupations shrink our focus, so that we are less able to notice other people’s feelings and needs, let alone respond with empathy.” In chapter 4 of Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this lack of attention “listening with half an ear.”

Bonhoeffer points out that we are not as quick to listen as we ought to be. He says people do not find a listening ear in the Christian fellowship because “these Christians are talking where they should be listening.” So many Christians do not feel like they are heard because everyone is talking instead of listening. Psychiatrist Paul Tornier once said, “Listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as those between couples. They are for the most part dialogues of the deaf.”

I once went to dinner with my nieces. Both of them were so connected to their phones that they were not giving much attention to those at the table. I asked one of them if I could see their phone. And then, I put it in my pocket and told them that I would leave if they did not want to eat with us. We all laughed, but the point was made.

A friend at church invited me to attend an NBA game with him. He picked me up and the entire time he was connected to his phone. He either took calls or texted the entire way to the game and back from the game. It was hard to have much of a conversation with him because his mind was fragmented by too many communications. There were even times during the game he spent with his phone. 

We are a culture with half an ear.

Simply put, there is no substitute for giving someone our complete attention. When someone gives us their complete attention we know we are cared for and respected. We are only able to give a “whole ear” when we stop trying to do more than one thing at a time. We must be willing to step away from our distractions so that we can be fully engaged with one another. We must develop the skill to hear what someone else is saying, not just what we think they are saying.


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