I have always loved congregational singing. When I was a preschooler on Sunday mornings, the congregation often sang, “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
I had no idea what sheaves were, so my young mind translated sheaves into something I knew: sheets.

After all, Mondays were laundry days and we hung the sheets on an outside clothesline to dry. Naturally we brought them in by late afternoon. Bringing in the sheets made perfect sense to me.

Recently, I have had cause to revisit that misunderstanding. I quoted a friend in a very positive manner in an article, but when she read it, she didn’t remember making the statement.

I told her I had made a note after returning home from the event and in fact she made the comment. Imagine my arrogance in insisting that she made a comment she doesn’t remember making.

Here is my dilemma: What else have I gotten wrong?

I have studied listening behavior for more than 50 years. I have written about it and lectured about it. I consider myself a good listener. My studies have taught me that we need to be 100 percent in the situation.

We must not assume we know what the speaker is about to say. We must not just be waiting for our chance to talk. We must be sure that we understand what the speaker said before we move ahead.

We can ask, “I heard you say this. Do I have it right?” We have a way of hearing just what we want to hear.

I was so sure I was right that I did not check with her to make certain. Have I heard other things that the speaker never said or intended? Have I been hurt by misheard words that had no barb in them? Have I responded in anger to words I misinterpreted?

Have I been so sure of the facts that I refused to listen to a different point of view? How many relationships have been destroyed by miscommunication? How many members have left the church because of what they thought they heard the minister say?

My grandmother had significant hearing loss. In those days, there was not much that could be done to help her. My dad wanted her to attend church with us. She still had her membership in a rural church where she could not attend.

Unfortunately, the day she did agree to go with us, the minister, a very kind and thoughtful man, said: “I hope you will understand if I speak louder today. Mrs. Carnell is here and I want her to be able to hear me.”

She did hear him and interpreted his message to mean that she needed it more than anyone else. She never went with us again. No amount of explanation from my father changed her mind.

A cardinal rule of communication is that if it is possible for someone to misunderstand what I say, he or she will misunderstand.

Over the years, I have developed what I call Carnell’s Law: “People cannot deal with a lack of information. What they do not know, they will make up answers to fill the void.” Therefore, get accurate information out quickly.

A second law is that it is impossible to be too simple.

I know I can never be sure that my listener will hear my words the way I intend them; therefore, when I am the listener I share the burden of getting it right.

So often we place the total burden on the speaker. We expect her or him to capture our attention, to excite us, to inform us, to entertain us, to inspire us or to comfort us.

We have an equal obligation to prepare ourselves to listen and to fully engage. I must keep my emotions in check. I need to know what my hot buttons are and refuse to allow you to push them. Active listening is hard work.

This incident taught me that I need to take a healthy dose of my own medicine. I may or may not have attributed a quotation to the wrong person; however, I compounded my problem by insisting that I was correct.

I stubbornly refused to acknowledge the possibility that I had gotten it wrong. There are none so deaf as those who refuse to hear.

And now that I have confessed my guilt, I think I will go bring in those sheets.

Mitch Carnell is a consultant specializing in interpersonal and organizational communication. He is the editor of “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” He and Carol are members of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C. He blogs at MitchCarnell.com.

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