First Get the Whole Story

Early in my experience as an educator, I heard my administrator say to parents (tongue-in-cheek), “If you don’t believe half of what your student says happened in the classroom, we won’t believe half of what they tell us happened at home.” Like many humorous comments, this contains a morsel of truth. People have a tendency to represent facts in such a way as to paint themselves in the best possible light, and children are no different. Often over the years, I have fielded phone calls from parents who were contacting me because of what their child said happened in class (things like, “my child told me that the teacher said this in class!”). I quickly learned to redirect their concern to the teacher, so that the parent could hear the whole story. Nearly every time, the parent has come back to me and said, “Now that I have the whole story, it makes a lot more sense.” (And most of the time, the story the child told at home was an effort to cover up or misdirect from wrong choices of behavior made by the student in the classroom.)

There are two particular passages in Scripture that have greatly helped me to understand this idea. One is Proverbs 18:13, which says, “He who answers a matter before he hears the facts—it is folly and shame to him” (Amplified Bible). The Message says it even more plainly: “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” This verse was first shared with me by a professor when I was completing a marriage and family counseling internship, as an exhortation to probe and question thoroughly before drawing conclusions in the counseling setting. For quite a while, I literally kept the verse written on a notecard, taped on top of my desk, as a reminder. I have since learned that this verse applies to many circumstances, not just to a counseling session. When you deal with people (and most of us do), you will have the experience of people telling you the story from their own perspective, which will likely mean that it may or may not be true (as I shared in a previous post, “either it’s true or it’s not”). It is foolish and stupid to react or respond without first getting the whole story

The second verse is James 1:19, which says, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” As many grandmothers have shared with their grandchildren, “there’s a reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should listen twice as much as we speak!” This verse has been a constant reminder to me to be careful to listen first, although in the process of my growth as a leader, it was a lesson that sometimes came the hard way.

In one particular organization in which I worked, I made a spectacular blunder that loudly and clearly drove this lesson home to me. I was leading a small group of event planners in planning for one specific event, and everyone in the group (except me) had been involved in that organization for several years. As the leader, I felt that I should take charge of presenting good ideas, so I began the first meeting by telling the rest of the group all of my ideas. My enthusiasm (combined with the fact that I had not yet established trust or relationship) resulted in the rest of the group shutting down while giving verbal support to my ideas. However, over the next few days I began to hear from others that the entire committee was frustrated with me, and the event was now in jeopardy. I had to go back to the committee and apologize for speaking without listening, and then I had to make it safe for them to talk. When I did that, I learned so much about the history and tradition associated with that event, and could see that I had been on the verge of causing damage to the culture. I needed to take the time to listen, understand history, and get the whole story.

The added bonus is that when you take time to learn the whole story, you are much more likely to be able to discern if it is true or if it is not.  In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, Moses provided some direction to the people of Israel to help them understand how to discern this, when he said, “And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” He made the point that if you take the time to observe and get the whole story, beginning to end, you can tell if it is true or not.

It is easy for a leader to assume that leadership means taking charge and giving direction. However, I believe that these principles from Scripture give us a very different picture: leadership should be characterized by listening. Ask questions. Make it safe for people to share. Validate. And make sure you get the whole story before you react.

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