Book Critique: “Why Don’t We Listen Better? Communicating and Connecting in Relationships”

Summarize

Jim Peterson wrote this book as a means to foster good communication, specifically through the forgotten art of effective listening. Although he is coming from a background of nearly fifty years of pastoral counseling, what he teaches in this book can be used in every aspect of interpersonal communication.

The book is a combination of three concepts: Flat-Brain Syndrome, the Talker-Listener Card, and a collection of thirty-three listening techniques. The Flat Brain Syndrome is Peterson’s explanation of why people speak or act out of a negative place. In his theory, a person is made up of three parts: emotions (stomach), the heart, thoughts (head). When a person’s emotions are overloaded, this squeezes out the heart and head. The result is a “squished” or “flat” brain that does not speak or think as rationally as it should. When a person recognizes that someone else is speaking out of a “Flat-Brained Syndrome”, they have the opportunity to either respond in kind or break the cycle providing an opportunity to settle the emotions and restore reason. As Peterson writes, “The more you understand people, the less there is to forgive.”

The second part of the book introduces the Talker-Listener Card (TLC). This is a two-sided card that Peterson uses in his counseling as well as a variety of other scenarios. One side of this card shares the Talker’s goals, to own the problem and share their feelings, and also conditions, to talk without accusing, attacking, labeling, and judging. The flip side of this card is for the listener. The listener’s goals are to provide safety, to understand, and to clarify. The listener agrees to listen without agreeing, disagreeing, advising, or defending. About the purpose of this card, Peterson writes, “If we take turns, that is, focus on one point of view at a time, we literally can’t argue.”

In addition to these two parts, Peterson has thirty-three listening tips that run through the course of the book. Most chapters end with one of these tips as well as a page or two of explanation. Sometimes, these tips align well with the previous content of the chapter, but not always. In his preface, Peterson said he placed these tips throughout the book so that the reader can begin practicing them as they read.

Respond

He also said in the preface that the best way to read this book is a little at a time with the goal of practicing what is read before moving forward. Obviously, this is not an option in a brief eight-week course, but this is certainly a book worth slowing down and coming back to at a future point.

Two different past conversations came to mind when I was reading through the listening portion of the TLC. Peterson wrote that the purpose of good listening was to “encourage talkers to invite you into their lives”. I have been notoriously bad at listening solely for the point of inserting my life into the conversation. A friend of mine back in my undergrad days gently called me out on this. She pulled me aside and told me that “I always have to have one better.” She pointed out how I always seem to want to “one-up” whatever experience or idea someone else is sharing. This conversation frequently comes to mind when I find myself inserting my story into conversations. I would like to say that I am better and more aware of when I am doing this, but it is still an area in which I can use a lot of improvement. Peterson’s book was excellent at providing tools for how I can improve.

The second conversation came to mind when Peterson wrote about listening without advising. I have recently moved from Gaziantep to Antalya, Turkiye. Shortly before going, I had a last dinner with a friend who was also moving from Gaziantep, but she was planning on moving back to her home in Alexandria, Egypt. When Coronavirus first closed our schools, she asked for permission to leave and do her online classes from there. This permission was denied “in case the school reopens quickly”. Obviously, this did not happen, but also the international flights, which were still open have been closed and were still closed at the time of our dinner. She had a wedding to prepare for and a new home to furnish in Egypt, but she could do none of it because she was still stuck in Turkey.

Together, the two of us got on our phones and searched through all the different ways she could navigate from Turkey to Egypt. It wasn’t until I was reading this book that I realized that what my friend wanted was not a solution but empathy. She is just as smart and tech-savvy as I am (if not more). She could have easily searched through all this on her own, and probably had done so a hundred times. What she needed wasn’t an answer but a safe place to express her frustrations. I love what Peterson wrote about this. “Why do people say advice is cheap? Because it is seldom taken and rarely does any good.”

Reflect

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Both the Flat Brained Syndrome and the TLC seem almost too simple to be practical, but they are profound in their simplicity. Just yesterday morning, when I heard someone giving a very cutting remark, the thought immediately entered my mind, “He’s just being flat brained.” James tells us that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19 NIV) Solomon tells us that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1) These are things I want to do. It is the me I want to see, but there has been a disconnect between seeing and doing.

Knowing and understanding the Flat Brained Syndrome has given me a paradigm through which I might be able to more quickly spot when someone is speaking out of anger. This, in turn, will help me to be able to slow down and give a soft answer rather than simply fanning the flames. Accordingly, responding by alternating feelings and thoughts (Technique #5) looks to be a brilliant way to help the talker work out and work through their heightened emotions. As Peterson wrote, “When you help talkers alternate feelings and thoughts, you help them see how each one affects the other.”

Act

I have already begun working on translating a Turkish version of the TLC. Although I am not currently working with one, I have in the past and almost certainly will in the future be working with an English Speaking Club. This is an incredibly effective means for stepping into the lives and fabric of the community. As I was reading the chapter on using the TLC as a family dinner game, I imagined how it can be simplified and adapted as an activity to be used in a Speaking Club session. Then Turkish language versions of the card can be given to the participants with an explanation of how it can be used in other settings in their daily lives (including their own family dinners). This has the advantage of not only being a creative and fun way for the Speaking group to practice English and get to know each other but also showing how what they are learning at the session can be a blessing to their larger world. This is a prime example of how the church can be a city on the hill and a light to the world.

Beyond this community action step, there is a treasure trove of ways this book can be a blessing in my own life. Honestly, I feel that the entire psychological profession does far more harm than good and my personal experiences and observations of others with a professional counselor have not been good. But I am a mentor. I am currently mentoring on a regular basis two young men, a Turkish home leader, and a Syrian pastor. I have always tried my best to use the Socratic method in my teaching them, but one thing I need to immediately work on is to make a sharper distinction between asking healthy questions and asking what Peterson calls “Perry Mason questions”. This is just one of the many small “aha” moments I had when reading and I certainly plan to come back again after a slower read that the ideas won’t be just that but also applications.

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