CHRISTIAN COMMENT: Hearing what is being said

More and more people seem to find it difficult to hear properly.

That’s not to do with inability to pick up quiet sounds. Nor with most parents’ complaint about the lyrics in their teenager’s music.

Possibly information overload. Too much input can stop you recognising what really is important. May be why we keep on getting headlines such as ‘Government warned of food-chain fraud last year’ or ‘Key 2009 report on NHS care ignored’. Sometimes it must be near impossible to sift out the truly important.

The real difficulty, I suspect, is none of these but how we speak and listen.

How we speak? Here’s what David Cameron is reported to have said at the start of this week’s visit to India: “India’s rise is going to be one of the great phenomena of this century and it is incredibly impressive to see. Britain wants to be your partner of choice. We’ve only just started on the sort of partnership that we could build. As far as I’m concerned, the sky is the limit.”

Four or five general statements. The word ‘incredibly’ – as an emphasis – both overused and inexact. The climax of the statement a cliché.

It’s lazy speaking.

Unfair? An out-of-context quotation? Maybe but The Independent’s poll on whether Mr Cameron is better or worse than premiers of the last half-century put him behind Thatcher, Blair, Wilson and Heath. Not based on political preference: those four cover too broad a spectrum. No, much is to do with a perceived lack of clarity. ‘What’s he really saying?’’What does he believe?’ We may have disliked or not trusted the others but what they intended us to know was usually clear.

So we need to make sure that – even when the sense is not obvious – what we say is as clear as possible.

But it’s not always the fault of the speaker .

Sometimes it’s how we listen. We tend to listen selectively, hearing what we want to hear, not necessarily hearing what is really being said. So my source for the quote may have already filtered what Mr Cameron said.

Unfortunately that doesn’t alter his lazy expression but let’s say the speech was about immigration. Words about India’s position as a world economy might have been background. To highlight them so strongly would be unhelpful and misleading.

We can all do that. From what someone says we pick out what’s important to us and react to that. Jesus found the religious ‘thought-police’ were forever picking him up on details of speech or behaviour. He wanted to heal people or to simplify their lives. The religious leaders complained that, in doing so, he was operating outside the rules. He said that worshipping God was a matter of what was inside you: you didn’t need a stone building. Effectively, you could destroy that. They accused him of ‘attempted destruction of religious property’.

Lazy hearing? More like deliberate insult. More like avoidance of truth.

Every time we don’t hear what someone is really saying – or at least every time we don’t at least try to catch their meaning – we do the same.

By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.