Sunday, March 20, 2011

Level 2: Spiritually-rooted skills (A)

This section deals with the ‘skills’ part of my equation:
Potential for Good = Desire x Skills.

It builds on my discussion of desire for good, and on my overview of this equation.

There are some concrete skills that one can develop, that require Level 1 "Christlike attributes." Here are some I won’t discuss:

- Learning Through Constructive Criticism
- Being Mature or Serious When Necessary.
- Comfortable Around Grown-Ups.
- Can Work Hard

Here are some I will discuss.


Most of the time we passively listen to others. They talk about topic A, then we respond and tell them what we think about topic A, then move on to topic B, then they tell us what they think about topic B, and the conversation goes on.

Only very rarely do we practice “active listening.” The intent of active listening is to try to fully understand the feelings and emotions of others before one responds.

How to do that? When they express complex feelings or experiences, and when it’s appropriate, ask them, “So you’re saying that xxxxxxx. Is that right?” Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re not. Either way, they will appreciate the attempt to understand them and will usually further explain themselves.

It’s hard. Genuine sympathy requires 'charity,' or pure love. It involves real emotional effort, trying to understand the other person and put yourself in their shoes. It rules out the common move: Rush In And Offer A Lengthy Sermon of Masterful Advice That Will Definitely Solve the Problem.

You aren't all-wise, and you need to understand before you can offer a good solution. You can only understand by listening.

Stephen Covey calls this “Diagnose before You Prescribe,” and gives a wonderful example.

Imagine. . . . You have been getting headaches and are having trouble with your eyes. You think you need glasses. You call on Stan, your friend, an optometrist. He briefly listens to your complaint and replies, "Yes, I'm sure you need glasses. Here, I've worn this pair now for ten years, and they've really helped me. They'll do the same for you, and I've got an extra pair at home. Take this pair."

You try them on. "But Stan, I can't even see as well as before," you report.

He assures you, "That's okay, it's just a matter of adjustment, of getting used to them. Before long you'll see as well as I do."

The foolishness in this scene is transparent. And yet, in everyday settings, prescribing (giving advice) before diagnosing (understanding) is most common.

For instance, you are trying to communicate with your daughter. "Come on, honey, tell me how you feel. I know it's hard, but I'll try to understand."

"Oh, I don't know, Mother—you'd think it was stupid."

"Of course I wouldn't! You can tell me. Honey, no one cares for you as much as I do. I'm only interested in your welfare. What is it that makes you so unhappy?"

"Oh, I don't know."

"Come on, Mary, what is it?"

"Well, frankly, Mother, I just don't like school anymore."

"What do you mean you don't like school! Everyone in our family likes school! If you'd apply yourself like your older sister does, you'd do better and then you'd like school. Time and time again we've told you to settle down. You've got the ability, but you just don't apply yourself."

After a long pause you begin again, "Now go ahead. Tell me why you feel this way."

Sometimes we train our children not to open up to us with their problems.

Listening requires love and patience; it requires us to acknowledge the possibility that we might be wrong. I have more than one listened to a small voice inside me, ordered back the cavalry rushing in with My Infallible Advice, and asked a good friend struggling to express their feelings one more clarifying question.

Listening is a spiritual skill.


Everyone communicates differently.

Like listening, communicating effectively involves understanding the needs of people, what makes them tick. Finding topics to talk about that they enjoy and are passionate about. Not treating friends as if they are means to an end – talking to them only when you need them – but showing genuine interest in their well-being.

I learned a great lesson about this when my companion and I were trying to save a couple’s marriage. I link the story here.

A few spiritually-based communications skills I've had to work on include:

- Admitting you are wrong when you are.
- Making it easy (not emotionally costly) for others to realize (or admit) they are wrong.
- Disagreeing with someone's opinion without undermining them as a person

This list could go on and on.


One of the most oft-repeated verses in the scriptures is this:

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:7)

My mission president put it simply: “Most people don’t ask God for what they really want, because they have no idea what they really want!”

I don’t mean the important-at-the-time matters, to perform well on an exam or a presentation, to make a good impression to a desired girlfriend or boyfriend, to get that job or a promotion.

The bucket lists I see from time to time are a good idea, but only a start.

I mean what you really want in life. Your deepest desires. What are you trying to achieve in your 20 or 30 or 60 or 70 remaining years on earth? It’s a lot of time to waste.

The ultimate idea should be to define two or three central goals – short and simple – that can inform every day of your life.

I’ve spent a large amount of my time since my mission – at least a few hours every week – thinking about these questions and writing my thoughts down. I feel a new clarity of thinking about what I really want in life emerging from that.

If you don’t know what you want yet, that’s okay. Spend some time deeply pondering it. Talk to some people with more experience. Figure out what you have to do to find out.

A good Covey essay on these topics is here.

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