A Slice Of Life To Go is an online Christian blog written by Todd Thompson. It encourages people to see the beauty in ordinary moments and to know God’s unconditional, unfailing love in everyday life.

The Language Of Listening

January 22nd, 2002

It was late afternoon when I walked in. Two people in the entry area turned their heads and watched me find my way to the counter. A guy in a blue shirt who had celebrated the end of his eight hour grind by ditching his coat and loosening his tie and a lady sitting against the wall, her purse in her lap, next to a plastic plant. They were waiting for Sweet and Sour something or other to take home for dinner and I was here to pick up my take out order.

 Sing High.JPG

 When you think Chinese food you probably don’t think Phoenix, Arizona. But every city has its spots of authenticity. The Sing High Chop Suey House happens to be the oldest restaurant in the valley, open since the late 1920’s. The original name for the restaurant was the “Shanghai Chop Suey House”. But something got lost in translation during the conversation between the Chinese owner and the Mexican sign painter. Either there was no money for a new sign or he didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings, but it’s been “Sing High” ever since. 

Through the opening behind the counter I could see into the busy kitchen. Giant woks sizzled and smoked as the cook deftly stir fried meat and vegetables. The wonderful smell of fresh ginger and green onions blending with hot sesame oil permeated the air. In one motion, a pair of hands passed big plates of spicy barbecued pork through the window and slap dinged the bell before grabbing the next green order ticket hanging from a metal clip above the counter.

The polite Mexican lady who had taken my order on the phone was now returning from a table in the far corner. She was talking to her herself in Spanish before yelling through the window into the kitchen. “Hey! ‘choo didn’t get the order right! They wanted three orders and you only gave them two. This is why the customers they get mad at me. ‘Choo messed up the order!”

The cook turned around. From my vantage point, he had no head. Just shoulders and chest and arms waving metal spatulas. The voice had a Chinese accent. “No! I cook thlee ‘oda Snow Pea. Thlee! You no get ‘oda right!”

“Hey! Whatchu’ talkin’ about? ‘Choo messed up the order!”

“No! I cook thlee ‘oda! Thlee oda Snow Pea! You no get oda right!”

This was a communication challenge. A battle of accents. Off to one side, the petite elderly matriarch was folding take-out boxes. She had had enough. In rapid fire Chinese, she said something to the cook who turned back to his woks without a word. 

The waitress turned, handed my my order and said to me in her south-of-the-border voice, “‘Choo know the problem around here? Is nobody speaks any Englich.” I smiled, then I laughed. Then she laughed, too. It was a wonderful human moment in downtown Phoenix on a Friday afternoon. 

In any language, people are people. We all want to be heard. To be listened to. To be understood. Because when we’re heard and listened to and understood, we feel validated. Like our role on the planet is significant. It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter where we work or what we do. Whether we’re a cook behind the counter or a clerk in a corporate cubicle, we need to feel that we’re significant.

Lately I’ve been conscious of how much or little I listen to what people say. I’m not doing as well as I could. Sometimes I’m busy formulating a response instead of focusing on what the other person is saying. Sometimes my head is nodding while my brain is tackling a problem completely unrelated to the conversation. Sometimes I step on the tail of people’s sentences the way someone following too closely steps on the back of your shoe and pulls it off your heel. People must think I’m in a hurry to move past them when I do that. Worse, they probably feel they aren’t important.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. We hear everything around us. Ambient noise, white noise, words, music. We may ignore any or all, but every sound registers on our ears. We even hear in our sleep. There’s no “off” switch we flip when our head hits the pillow. That’s why I can go from Stage 4 sleep to vertical and ambulatory at 3 AM when one of my babies cries.

Listening, however, implies intent. Listening is purposeful hearing. When we genuinely listen we hear with the purpose of discerning what is being communicated. We listen to better understand. By that definition, how are your listening skills? Mine need some work. So I’m dusting off some tried and true techniques to be a better listener. Like counting to five after the other person finishes speaking before offering a response. To focus on the other person by not being preoccupied and not multi-tasking when someone is speaking to me. To make eye contact. To stop being defensive and just listen to what the other person is saying. To slow down long enough to ask someone, “How’s it going?” and stand there long enough for them to tell me. To recognize that by genuinely listening I’m being teachable. When I really listen, I really learn.

Before this day is out, make it a point to acknowledge the value of another person. Ask them how life is going and stick around long enough to listen. People will likely forget most of what we say, but they’ll always remember that we listened.

“The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made both of them.” – Proverbs 20:12