When to Speak, When to Listen

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, before I started in apologetics, before I had even an inkling that I would eventually embark on a career as an author and public speaker, I worked in retail. I was responsible for, you know, glamorous things like stocking shelves, vacuuming floors, ringing up purchases, and the occasional “Cleanup on aisle five!”

Eventually, by dint of hard work and a fair amount of what my grandmother called “sticktoitiveness,” I was promoted to assistant store manager and, within a year, to store manager. Pretty cool! And I was all of twenty-one years old. Honestly, I think the company I worked for must have been pretty hard up for eligible staff to promote someone as young as myself.

Even though I worked like a dog to claw my way up to middle management (lots of late nights and early mornings away from my wife and young children), my ascent up the company ladder was, in truth, due mainly to several sharp and diligent people working for me at the store whose efforts helped me stand out. Corporate saw me as a promising young store manager who was “going places.” Amazingly, about a year later, I got a call from the company’s VP of operations.

“Patrick, we’d like to explore some options with you,” he said. “No promises, but we’re pleased with what we’ve seen in your store, and we’re thinking about moving you into a higher position that will really let you apply your skills.”

I was beside myself with excitement. Me?! At twenty-two years old? Getting invited by Corporate to bump up to a district supervisor position? It was my dream come true.

“So, look,” the VP said. “Our executive vice president will be in Denver in two days, and he wants to interview you for the position. We’re going to fly you up to meet with him. It’s just a formality, really, but it’ll be good for him to meet you discuss the new duties you’ll be assuming.”

Two days later, dressed in the brand-new JCPenney suit I had hastily bought (but couldn’t really afford), I arrived at the Denver airport and took the shuttle to the hotel. Dinner was exhilarating. Mr. Corporate Exec, a tall, silver-haired man about my granddad’s age, was friendly, gracious, and clearly interested in considering me for the promotion. Over a cold beer and steak dinner, we discussed the new duties and responsibilities I’d assume if I got the position (which, in my mind, was a foregone conclusion).

After the waiter cleared our dishes, we talked business for another hour or so, until he rose and extended a firm handshake saying, “Well, Patrick, thanks for taking the time to meet with me. We’ll be in touch soon.” And with that, the interview was over. I was elated. Things had gone extremely well, I thought, anyway.

Except that that they hadn’t.

A few days later, my boss called to tell me that the earlier plan for me to move up was now on hold.

“What?” I practically yelped into the phone. “I thought you said I was a shoo-in. That this interview was a mere formality. What do you mean I didn’t get the promotion? What happened?”

“Well, to be honest with you,” he said, hesitating for a moment, “the SVP felt you talked too much and didn’t listen enough.”

My heart fell. Without realizing it, during the interview, I had spent practically the entire time yammering away about my skills, my experience (such as it was), my goals, my contributions to the company, etc. I was so inexperienced and so anxious to please that I never shut up long enough to really listen to what the executive wanted to tell me about what the new job would entail. Had I only stopped flapping my gums and listened, I probably would have gotten the promotion. As it was, the SVP realized I wasn’t yet the man for the job.

Which brings me to a trenchant comment by the renowned Catholic spiritual master, Thomas à Kempis: “Whoever does not accustom himself first to listen and to be silent will rarely be numbered among the learned and the wise. Many are judged to be fools because they lack good manners.”

This is true in human interactions, as I learned to my chagrin that day. And it’s especially true when doing apologetics. An effective apologist listens as well as speaks. It’s futile to keep banging away with the message—a steady barrage of facts, Bible verses, patristic testimonies, etc.—if you don’t stop talking long enough to get a sense of the other person’s position, his perspective, his logic. It’s in those moments of saying nothing and attentively listening that you’ll pick up on subtle nuances and clues as to how best to proceed. This also shows the other person that you’re sincerely interested in understanding his point, even if you disagree with it.

And as the saints tell us, when conversing with God in prayer, speaking less and listening more is an indication of Christian maturity. True, the Lord wants you to speak to him about everything in your life, no matter how minor, but he also has much to say to you. So, at some point, stop yammering and listen to him!

Copyright © Patrick Madrid 2017 patrickmadrid.com. Published with permission.