Mark Surey writes on the importance of listening:

I have seldom met a scholar who is not fascinated by and excited about his or her field of study. That level of interest, combined with the God-given capacity to contribute, to a large extent forms the basis for a call to scholarship. It really helps if we both want and are able to do something.

Then, as well as a desire to research the field, there is also a desire to teach it. A scholar who is fascinated by their field wants both to acquire knowledge about it (research) and to find an opportunity to transmit knowledge to those who want to hear and/or learn (teaching). So if either is blocked, there is frustration – although the nerdy among us may develop contentment with specializing in research, and the ideologically obsessive likewise with teaching!

In general we want to be listened to, and to have a responsive forum for what we want to communicate to others about our field of study. And it’s annoying when our hearers don’t seem to really listen – whether it’s apathetic undergraduates, unresponsive peer reviewers, or even that yawning boy in Sunday school. Why do they not understand the significance, or indeed the actual content, of my pearls of wisdom? What is wrong with them? Should I repeat what I have already said? Say it louder? Perhaps I’ll say it slower so that they can get it more easily? Maybe go back to the basics again, so that they have all my assumptions? But this risks boring them further, if they can’t or won’t listen to you, because what you say is either detached from their previous experience, or seems irrelevant to their life or interests.

I am sure this is a common experience for us all. So how do we go forward?

Basically, before we want other people to listen to us, we must be willing and able to listen to them. And that listening has to be active. I have met so many Christian scholars who have had to adjust to either a class that does not understand their material (although they ought to be able to), or a rejected research proposal which was put forward optimistically, or simply uninterested colleagues. And their stance has been not exactly subtle: YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS! But the louder the shout, the greater the switch-off.

We simply need to listen to others before we expect them to listen to us. This is so simple but not always easy. Why is it hard? Simply because our starting position is our obsession with our own research and teaching. We get it – so why don’t they?

Not because there is something wrong with them – but because they are not us. Each of us has specific and different things which matter to us in particular, and this is valuable. 

Therefore, maybe I should listen to what matters to them before I expect them to listen to me.  Experience shows that this actually works. Think about your own life: after someone has listened to you, are you then more inclined to listen to them?  As Christians, we are called to a counter-cultural unselfishness.  And aren’t we supposed to share material, to expand teaching and research as scholars?

I should listen to the experience and worldview of my hearer, before I expect them to listen to mine. This is so important in funding applications and impact statements. To be successful, you need to see your material not from your perspective but theirs! They are primarily giving to you, not you to them, so let’s not be arrogant!

My experience is that teachers and researchers who can step sideways and look at their work through the eyes of outsiders, actively listen, and start looking at their insight through the eyes of others, are the ones who manage to communicate the significance of what matters in their scholarship. The class listens. The funding comes. The peers review.

Dr Mark Surey is Travelling Secretary for the Christian Academic Network.