The Humility of Listening

Do you speak Mongolian?

That’s a question I get asked a lot, particularly when traveling around the US and people find out what I do. I get asked that here, sometimes as well. The answer is not really that easy.

Yes, I can speak Mongolian. Yes, I can carry on a conversation with most folks here. Yes, I can even kind of sort of teach(ish) in the local language.

But speaking is only a part. In fact, maybe just a small part.

The real question that should be asked is “Do you listen in Mongolian?”

Because I am much worse at that.

I take some solice in the fact that I’m not the only one in that boat. I’ve found that most of us who are foreigners living in a land that is not our home are not very good at listening. But that’s small solice.

Last weekend the Grain of Wheat staff took a group of college students to a local mountain to play in the snow and get some fresh air for the afternoon. We had a great time of fellowship together, followed by a fantastic night of live music at our weekly “Open Mic” night. That evening I was taking several students home, and found myself lagging in my Mongolian understanding. I could make some excuse about being tired. Poor excuse, actually. But whatever the case, instead of really listening to what the students were saying, I was simply agreeing with whatever they saying. It’s a Mongolian language trick that a lot of us who live here practice. We nod our heads up and down as if we understand everything clearly and repeatedly say the Mongolian word which is the equivolent of “Okay”.

“За, За, За, За… ” (Za, za, za, za)

I was doing that.

I wasn’t listening or understanding them at all. I was just nodding my head like a poorly performing puppet.

They all started to laugh at me, because it became apparent to them that I wasn’t getting what they were saying. One said to me, “You are a ‘yes man’” (followed by a carload of laughter) … and another “You need to listen.” Mongolians are very direct when it comes to this sort of thing.

Thankfully I was also able to laugh at myself (an important skill for living in another culture), and, in the end, we all know that we care about each other.

But, this is a much larger issue. In fact, it’s a huge issue in my field of work. It’s often not just about being understood in the individual conversation. As Americans, we are taught our entire lives that Americans and American ways are the best and the right ways. Even when it comes to talking about Christianity, and Jesus being “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (which I whole-heartedly believe and base my entire life on), we jump into “conversations” (usually monologues) without ever listening. Thus we never learn anything.

This is the epitome of arrogance, I think.

And I’ve seen a lot done in Mongolia without listening to Mongolians. Both in the business world, and in the name of Jesus. 

We plant churches without listening. We teach theology without listening. We run businesses without listening. We do a lot of activities, all of which are good, healthy … even Kingdom oriented. But without listening. If we don’t listen … I think much of our activitiy will be self-sabotaged.

I’ve come to this conclusion. My number one job as a cross-cultural worker is to learn, not to teach. I know that’s counter-intuitive to the American way. But, things here are so different from the way I am used to them being (even after eight years!). Thinking here is so different than the way I think. My first job and first priority is to listen.

If we fail to listen, I believe we fail to demonstrate the humility of Christ … and that can undermine everything we say we are here for, without us even knowing it. That’s a little scary to me.

I told my friends in the car the other evening, that I was sorry for not listening. I went on to share that this is a weakness of mine. I told them that I do tend to talk first, but that’s wrong and selfish. I want to learn to be a better listener.

I appreciate that being pointed out in my life.

Once again, I have learned something incredibly valuable from this place and this people.

“If you ask me what is the first precept of the Christian religion, I will answer first, second and third: Humility


“Don’t be sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Be sorry for the [Inuit people]. You know nothing and they must teach you.”


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Reader Comments (1)

Hi Bernie, I resonate with your words and your realizations... we live in a similar situation, and I have been convicted more than once of acting like I understand in order to "save face" when really, I have no idea what's going on! Admitting I'm not really understanding, and going through the tedious process (for them and me) of having them repeat and explain until I really *get* it is difficult - but almost always worth it. Thank you for being honest and sharing your heart!

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

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