It’s one of the most important pieces of advice for speakers, writers, teachers, communicators of all sorts….. get a good read of the room before you open your mouth, or pickup your pen or open your lap top. The opening story or joke one may use at an orthopedic surgeons conference my fall flat at a similar event for dentists. Two groups of people with different experiences, skill sets and possibly personalities. Knowing your audience – its key to connection and It’s a skill, dare I say it, I own. I believe it was developed over a lifetime of watching my father start and grow a church in the suburbs of Detroit. It continued as I moved into full time ministry with my husband and then for the last 18 years have built a business with hundreds of team members and customers…I’ve honed my people reading skill.
Or at least I thought I had.
This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with many people both personally and professionally. After a year of needing to intentionally disconnect, the summer of 2021 was full on – meet the people. I spent one week rekindling relationships with business connections around the state of Michigan. I stayed in 5 different homes in 7 days. I shared space with some of my favorite humans on the planet. My love language is coffee and connection (or as Gary Chapman Author of “The 5 Love Languages” would say – Quality Time) thus, my cup was filled. I took several long road trips with my 18 year old daughter and later in June our entire family travelled to Utah for a week with 80 + members of our extended family. My husband and I ended the summer with a trip to Indiana to watch our oldest daughter receive her Specialist Degree in Education, a full on graduation ceremony, in person. It was the cherry on the top of a really fantastic summer.
In this return to travel, and people, and gatherings I found myself needing to dust off some skills that had gone dormant since spring of 2020. Booking hotel rooms or scheduling Air bnbs. Checking schedules of friends to see if they would be home when I would want to visit. Budgeting for gas and food. Reading my GPS when rerouted in crazy Chicago traffic in the rain. Planning extra travel time for road construction. Packing appropriate clothing for weather changes and a variety of activities.
There was one skill, the one I thought I had down, that I discovered was most important. It required much time and patience. I learned it first in college so many years ago – that people really don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care. I remembered that before I speak I should listen, listen, and listen some more. I had to Know my Audience. And what I learned is that my audience is diverse, and passionate and caring and concerned about our world despite the glaringly vast differences of opinion on everything we are all currently navigating.
As I sat over numerous cups of coffee, or dry red depending on the time of day, I listened to the concerns of my people. I asked questions about what their last year of life had looked like. I worked hard to get a read on their level of peace or lack there of. We struggled together to answer questions that seem impossible to understand. We laughed over crazy things we had done to pivot on a daily basis, we cried over the loss of both our normal routines and also actual human beings. We prayed for the future of our world and often we agreed that on some issues we may need to disagree. In many cases I realized my audience that I thought I knew so well, had changed. And I guess, so had I.
And thats the real rub isn’t it? The one we all may be trying so hard to ignore. The fact that people we know and love and trust have chosen an opposing side to our own. We read peoples social media posts or watch their face covering activity ( or lack there of) in an attempt to understand. We then quickly make value judgements and form opinions that feel heavy and yucky and divisive. I’m watching my two college students navigating a list of written and unwritten rules now that they have returned to campus. The struggle to understand simple daily activities and relationships continues.
This past week I was with a friend that was sharing a news headline about a current hot topic. Her tone was one that communicated she had bought in to the “evidence” of the writer and was wanting my ‘Yes and Amen’ but I couldn’t give it because just the day before…
I had listened.
Twenty four hours earlier I had a conversation with another trusted friend on this same topic. She had shared data that completely opposed the information in the article my first friend had shared. I asked lots of questions to clarify and later went home and did my own research. When I shared my findings we were then able to have a healthy conversation about the issue – neither of us coming to a firm conclusion on the topic, but agreeing that there is usually always more to the story.
And that is the lesson I am taking from the summer of 2021 – that there is always more and getting to the “More” takes time and listening, and more time and more listening. After the time and the listening and the More time and the more listening there may come understanding but (and this is important) there might not come agreement.
You may not agree.
And it’s ok. It really is. It has to be. At least it does for me.
If I’m going to continue showing up in my work, my friendships, my faith community, my grocery store….
I have to come to grips with the reality that I may not see eye to eye with people I deeply know and deeply love.
As I walk out of my house today I look to the one that I’ve always looked to for wisdom and guidance and truth. Jesus. He rocked the world of many as he lived his short life with one goal in mind – to pay the price for the mess humanity had made of the perfect world his father had created. He was ok with disagreeing. He met people where they were at, not ignoring their issues, but loving them in the midst them. He broke rules, he listened to the questions of doubters and answered with love, grace and blunt truth when appropriate.
He was so willing to carry out His ultimate mission – to die on a cross – a perfect human in the place of imperfect humanity for one reason….
He knew his audience.
He knew they were desperate. He knew they were hopeless. He knew they were beautiful creations of his Father that loved them deeply. He knew them because he spent his lifetime correctly reading the room through countless hours of listening and answering questions and loving .
And the good news is… he still does.
He knows us.
You and me – members of the current audience, the ones filling the room of this stage of history.
He understands our questions.
He feels our sorrow.
He mourns the evil and the pain.
He sees our splintered relationships….
and he promises to walk with us in it,
He promises to bring peace, and wisdom and discernment.
It’s the hope I’m holding on to today – how good to know its available for you as well.