Monday over Coffee: Reticence

Reticence

In the days before cell phones, selfies, and videos taken on our ever-present handheld devices, many of you will recall how we used to memorialize our special occasions with Super 8 cameras. In addition, at least in my family’s case, every once in a while we’d also capture the audio of our special moments. My dad utilized a clunky battery-operated ‘Realistic’ brand cassette recorder for this purpose, and these tapes—the ones that have survived—are fun to revisit every so often. What’s perhaps most interesting about them is how even though my siblings and I were just three, four, five, or six years old at the time, one can detect our distinct personalities even at these early ages. 

 

In my case, these little relics from the 1970’s reveal that while I didn’t always insist on being the center of attention, I wasn’t going to be denied my share of airtime either. If my brother or sisters were getting more minutes on the mic than I was, I’d typically raise my voice becoming more animated and agitated until someone finally tuned in. Once, when I clearly felt I wasn’t being given the opportunity to fully air my profound thoughts on tape, the audio picks up a little scuffle between me and my brother, then an urgent outburst in my five-year-old voice, exclaiming, “I wanna talk!”

 

We’ve all been there. We want to talk. We want all our important ideas to be aired and all our brilliant offerings to be heard. However, sometimes our “I wanna talk” moments don’t really elevate the conversation at hand or propel the constructive exchange of ideas very much at all. Often in these moments, we become so intent on conveying our latest thoughts—to share that shiny little gumball that’s dropped from our brain to our tongues—we’re mainly trying to transmit a measure of value onto ourselves rather than into the conversation itself.

 

I had an exchange with a friend recently about our shared habit of listening with an intention to reply rather than to understand. Even in a dialogue about this very subject, I found myself wanting to show off to him all I’ve learned in my pastoral care experience about how to be a good listener. As he spoke, I caught my subconscious warming up its five-year-old vocal chords, “I wanna talk!”

 

“Reticence,” though it’s a quiet word, is also a counter-cultural notion these days. The idea of reticence, a hesitancy to talk, could be thought of as a “pause” button on the tape recorder of the fast-moving audiotape of our lives. There are certainly times to speak up and speak out, but what if, especially when we’re in conversation with each other, we turned our reticence dial upward. What might happen? What if we just tried to listen to one another better, perhaps even so far as actually waiting to be asked what we think.

 

In his famous book, The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck suggested that true listening requires a setting aside of one’s self. But this is tough, isn’t it? We’ve all experienced that inevitable encounter with our own minds as a conversation flows. Unbidden, thoughts and associations quickly form themselves into replies and responses to what our conversation partners are presently saying. If we’re not attending our minds with a dose of reticence at this juncture, that five-year-old little voice begins not only to think, “I wanna talk!” but stops listening altogether as it fine-tunes its own similar (but let’s face it— a little better) story.

 

Conversations are not supposed to be self-promotional opportunities, says author Celeste Headlee. She concludes her compelling TedTalk on the art of having better conversations with a story about living with her grandfather who was rather famous. Often folks would come over to their house to speak with him. As soon as the person left, her mother would say to her, "Do you know who that was? That was the mayor of Sacramento.” Or “that man once won a Pulitzer Prize.” Or “she’s a Russian ballet dancer." As this happened over and over again, Headlee began to assume that everyone she met had some hidden, amazing thing about them. Think about it. Actually they do. “There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. “You’ve never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.” There really is something hidden and amazing about everyone we encounter. So, maybe ask them what it is. Then, with a little self-imposed reticence, just listen. 

 

God—You always listen to me. There’s a divine reticence in Your character. May I emulate it.


Amen.


—Greg Funderburk


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