From the Book of Ben Sira:

Do not find fault before you investigate;
examine first, and then criticize.
Do not answer before you listen,
and do not interrupt when another is speaking.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 11:7-8 – October 26, 2012)

Conversation Skills CartoonJesus son of Sirach offered a lot of good advice in his little book sometimes called Liber Eccesiasticus, a book not included in the canon of inspired Scripture recognized by Protestants, but found in that selection of texts called the Apocrypha. Anglicans decline to use these texts to settle matters of doctrine, but read them ” for example of life and instruction of manners.” (Articles of Religion, Article VI, BCP 1979, page 868)

None of that advice, it seems to me, is better, nor more timely, than these verses from today’s Old Testament reading: investigate before speaking; listen before answering. The so-called “debates” (which were anything but) between the candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency of this country were exercises in how not to have a constructive and productive conversation. In whatever the format, none of which worked, these “debates” were showcases of people whose ears were hardly ever engaged, who weren’t examining things before criticizing and who weren’t listening before answering, and who definitely were interrupting when others were speaking.

I may use YouTube snippets of the debates in my pre-marital counseling of engaged couples! In that counseling, I talk with the couples about effective communication and problem solving and always, always encourage two things: active listening and assertiveness (which is very different from aggressiveness). Active listening means paying attention, not interrupting, and restating what you have heard so that you confirm your understanding; it means taking personal responsibility for getting what you hear from the other person right. Assertiveness means getting what the other hears from you right. It means taking responsibility for your feelings by using “I” statements; it means stating your position clearly and directly, not relying on the other to read your mind.

Obviously, the need for good interpersonal communications skills has been around as long as there have been people and the advice I give these couples is nothing new. Jesus Ben Sira was giving the same advice, how not to converse, a couple of millennia ago!


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.