I love the recent focus groups brought together by the New York Times. The concept is simple: they bring in a diverse group of people to answer questions about a topic. Participants vary by gender, age, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, vocation, and region of the United States. The results are fantastic. They’ve had conversations like:
- We’re Not All Democrats: 10 Latino Voters on the G.O.P.’s Appeal (Oct. 17,2022)
- 12 Teenagers on What Adults Don’t Get About Their Lives (March 24, 2022)
- These 11 Moderate Voters See an America That Others Don’t (June 21, 2022)
- What Happened When 7 Trump Voters and 6 Biden Voters Tried to Find Common Ground (July 28,2022)
- 11 Parents on How They Want Kids to Learn About History, Racism and Gender (June 2, 2022)
These groups are helpful as we try to understand how others see the world. I don’t pretend to know how others think and feel. I try not to even guess. The fact that I listen to my wife does not mean I know what all women think about something, and the fact that I have a teenager doesn’t make me an expert in Gen Z. Someone who knows me doesn’t know how all people from Memphis feel about an issue or how a Church of Christ preacher interprets a particular text.
Assuming we know what someone else thinks before they tell us can create ignorance at best and harm at worst. Our refusal to ask good questions and be curious leaves us ignorant. We miss a chance to learn, and bypass it because it is easier to cling to something we remember from decades ago or overheard when we were a child. Going through life without asking good questions is like sauntering down the aisles of the library and never bothering to open a book. A missed opportunity.
At worst, a refusal to listen to others can cause great harm. We place others in boxes that they struggle to escape. One social group is viewed as dishonest. Another gets perceived as intellectually-inferior. Another is greedy. Nobody wins. Some lose worse than others. Our assumptions can become blunt instruments in the harm of others.
I’m intrigued at the words that come immediately after James says we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). He says we should “welcome with meekness the implanted word” (1:20). I don’t think much about the word “meekness,” but I should. Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth. In this context, meekness means humbly receiving a word from God, rather than raising bitter objections. What if a conversation is an opportunity to grow more than a chance to show? Curiosity can be rewarding, not only for the insight we receive, but also for how it blesses others. When we ask others what they think or feel, we not only learn more about them and their circumstance, but we communicate value and worth to them.
It’s so easy to assume we know how another person or group thinks, feels, and believes. Take the next opportunity to ask. The results might be surprising and rewarding.