Book Review: James C. Peterson's Why Don't We Listen

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¶ … James C. Peterson's Why Don't We Listen Better? Communicating and Connecting in Relationships

"Hey, that's not what I meant!" Using James C. Peterson's 'talker-listener' card to engage in productive dialogue

Of course, I know how to communicate -- I know how to talk, and I can hear everything people say to me, what more do I need to do? Why do I need to read a book, in isolation, in the privacy of my study that attempts to tell me how I should communicate with others? However, individuals who have such a reaction to the title of Why Don't We Listen Better? Communicating and Connecting in Relationships by James C. Petersen (2007) should remember that there is a difference between listening and hearing, between really engaging with others in meaningful communication vs. simply exchanging words. Peterson's text attempts to give the reader effective strategies to improve personal communication processes. His approach can be useful to pastors, counselors, teachers, or simply everyone involved in a relationship who wants to improve his or her communication skills.

The book begins by examining why communication processes so often go awry. One of the core concepts of the work is that the more emotional people are, and the more emotionally attached they are to a particular point-of-view, the harder it is for them to listen. Their listening capability, if not their hearing capability shuts down. Peterson calls this the 'flat brain theory' of listening, where stomachs are in overload, filled with ego rather than openness. This causes hearts grow bricklike and unresponsive to the emotional appeals of others. The courtroom process of adversarial interaction rather than a meaningful negotiation of common views are the primary paradigm of our modern culture. While courtroom battles may look like win-lose, they are in reality lose-lose. Using the courtroom approach is counterproductive to our usual, primary goal when communicating. In everyday life our primary goal is not to be victors over others, but friends with our neighbors, loved ones, and colleagues. Reducing emotional disturbances, clarifying thinking, increasing self-confidence, and building supportive friendships are all essential to counteract our fallible and all-too-human tendency to fall into negative cultural and personal patterns of relating to others. Becoming a good listener reduces conflict and also makes us better storytellers and better people

Peterson offers what he calls the 'talker-listener' card or a kind of imaginary or invisible third person, a mediator to initiate dialogue not division. Playing by the rules of the conversational game, taking turns, and not engaging in a war like street fighters all ensure that the individuals engaged in the communicative process are listening as well as talking. Peterson makes communication into a very literal game, with accessories as well as rules. During his communications workshops, he takes manila cards and writes the word 'talker' and 'listener' on either side. This creates a sense of role-play to conversation -- one person is not fixed in a singular role of listening or talking, which often results in frustration, and because there must be a series of 'turns taken' no one point-of-view can dominate.

The talker-listener card is reversed as the participants assume different roles. On either side of the card there are rules and reminders for the speaker or the listener's role in the game. For example, the talker's goal is to share thoughts and feelings, and is reminded by the card that he or she 'owns' his or her problem not the listener, while the listener is reminded that he or she does not own the talker's problem but must remain calm. His or her job is to clarify, understand, and provide a safe space for dialogue without necessarily having to agree with everything that is being said.

You and I: A Personal Reflection

Good listeners improve [their] stories." Listening is the midwife of interesting stories or sermons. One of the most inspiring examples cited by Peterson is his experience in an African-American church, which exposed him to an interactive form of communicating spirituality that he was unfamiliar with until he attended a service as a guest. The congregation frequently used a call-and-response technique of relating to the preacher, frequently saying "amen." This improved the relationship between the speaking pastor and the listeners, and made them feel as if they were engaged in a community, a collaborative process. It isn't enough for the preachers/talkers to get the message across -- "we need help," said the African-American preacher, and noted that after his sermons, frequently his congregants praised the performance of the church as a whole, rather than the preacher's individual effort -- "we did good." This sense of involved participation helped clarify for Peterson why African-American congregants at this particular church were so committed to the community and to making the church an important part of their lives.

It also indicates to me why learning requires a sense of activity and contribution on the part of the listener. Growing up, I was often on the receiving end of my father's stories. Although many of his stories were very wise, and I loved and respected him with all of my heart, he was of the generation where children were seen, not heard. I often felt that I had interesting stories to tell to him, but he did not seem interested in hearing them. I hoped that when I grew older, he would grow more responsive and become a more attentive listener, but this did not happen. Gradually, I realized that the fault was not entirely mine as a storyteller, but was characteristic of the way he interacted with others.

Ironically, I think I was less rather than more responsive to the lessons he hoped to communicate with his stories because he never seemed to have an interest in my life. Also, his stories, which initially seemed so fresh to my young mind, gradually seemed dull with the constant retelling. A great deal of this difficulty was generational, I know, but upon reading Peterson's book I began to understand better how to teach others -- to listen to what they had to say, and to make them feel an active part of the listening process. It is not enough to be doctrinally correct. A pastor has to help the congregation member discover the rightness of the message of Jesus within his or her own heart and life. If pastor does not involve the listener when teaching, preaching, counseling, or mediating a problem, the pastor sounds moralizing and self-righteous rather than like someone with a real message of meaning and value. To know that a teacher cares, and to create a sense of safety and heartfelt participation, the listener will want to become the talker, the teller, the teacher in some fashion, and the speaker must feel self-aware and secure enough to allow such a transition of roles to occur. The teacher does not 'own' the lesson of the story.

Look at Peterson's View of the Self

The enemies of listening are attacking, accusing, judging, and labeling. This does not mean that the listener needs to suspend his or her judgment entirely, but must be confident enough to listen and to take in the other person's point-of-view. And labeling is always unhelpful. At its most extreme, labeling can reinforce societal prejudices and injustices, such as generalizing about a member of a particular race, religion, or ethnic group before the individual has spoken. But even on a seemingly more innocuous level, labeling can be very dangerous. When someone says "you never help with the dishes," immediately the accused person begins to resist, thinking of all of the times he or she did help with the dishes.

All hope of dialogue is shut down when people are engaged labeling, as the opposite party has been classified and thus silenced, and is not being treated as someone who can respond and make a contribution to the interaction. Labeling makes change impossible. Peterson stresses the need to have a generous view of the self where commonalities rather than divisions are stressed, in what may be called an 'I-thou' connection rather than the 'you vs. me' style of dialogue so endemic to modern culture. Communication requires one individual to take the other person 'in' and to allow a change in the self during the context of the conversation, and perhaps even afterwards.

Not judging, not taking on the speaker's problems immediately is perhaps the most difficult advice Peterson gives. Helping people find their own solutions and to express themselves is the goal of counseling. A counselor must be careful of transposing his or her views onto others, even if he or she has a real, heartfelt need to help and a misplaced desire to direct the conversation rather than say 'it is not my problem, my job as a listener is to listen." The listener must see the communication process as two circles with overlap, with arrows going both ways, not as one circle being encompassed by the other person's point-of-view. Keeping positive images in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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