“Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying”: The Importance of Conversational Hermeneutics

In my studies at Covenant Seminary, one thing is taught repeatedly: Let the author speak for himself. In good hermeneutical fashion, our interpretation of a Biblical text is to be informed by the author’s context, intent, and occasion. The author, writing at a particular time, to a particular audience, and for a particular purpose is the authority in the concept or point of that text. Our understanding of that text, then, is driven by what the author’s concern for the text was (as inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course). This is the difference between exegesis (reading out of the text what is being communicated by the author), and eisegesis (reading one’s own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into the text). We can only properly apply said text if we understand what the authorial intent was. It is a failure to read or understand the text properly if we read our own biases and contexts into the text first, forcing it to fit into our own agendas. This (in a very incomplete nutshell) is the essence of proper understanding of what the author is seeking to communicate.

Yet, I found that these concepts are often neglected and even ignored in our day to day interactions. Even good pastors, theologians, and seminary students fall prey to “agenda intrusion” in conversation with others. Of course, this is not only true in the realm of theology, but also politics, culture, or personal interest. Just take a moment to explore the blog world and read the comments section. How many of the comments actually reflect what the author meant (or even said!)? Listen to a media coverage of some event, speech, or meeting. Are the “snap-shot” quotes they play or mention actually reflective of the main point? This is so common, so systemic, that it happens even in our daily conversations. A phrase that I hear more and more is “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” Why? Because we are in a cultural environment where we have to qualify everything we say–where we believe that what we understand someone to be saying is more important than what they may actually be saying. (Confession: I’m Guilty).  Here are some common ways this is played out:

1) What is not said is interpreted as being against it or not caring about it.

2) Mentioning something is taken as advocating it.

3) An argument is taken in its most extreme fashion, instead of a particular instance which it is being directed.

4) Some point is taken to apply to a completely separate and unrelated circumstance for which it was not intended.

5) The point of an argument is interpreted falsely by the listener, and that false interpretation is what drives the rest of their rebuttal.

6) One continues to move away from the main point of concern to a point of personal concern in order to undercut the main point, thus failing to respect the main intent.

7) One compares an argument to an unrelated circumstance, drawing weak parallels between them in order to prove it wrong.

This is but a sampling of the many ways a bad conversational hermeneutic can hinder appropriate and respectful conversation. Just as we at Covenant are trained to be careful readers, we all too should seek to be careful listeners. Without beginning first with a respect for the other, and seeking to understand  their perspective and intent, the conversation will end with frustration, conflict, and misunderstanding. How can we seek to avoid this?

1) Don’t interrupt: let them finish what they are saying. Your concern might be answered.

2) If it is a written text, read the whole thing and in light of everything else they’ve said.

3) Ask clarifying questions: “Do you mean to say…?” “What do you mean by…?” “Can you help me understand…?” This both affirms the other person’s value, and the value of their perspective, and will allow a healthy dialogue to continue.

4) Don’t “attack.” Aggressive language begets an aggressive response. Don’t use demeaning terminology, or compare what they are saying to some demeaning circumstance. This will more than likely end a conversation and lead to emotional rants on both sides.

5) Seek to understand the other’s context. Ask, “Why do you think that?” “What lead you to this conclusion?” “Have you thought about it this way?” “Why do you not find this argument compelling?” Understanding where they are coming from will help understand the conclusions they are drawing.

6) Don’t take their arguments to the extreme. Don’t say things like, “well you must hate all x, y, and z.” Or, “Well, then you don’t care about things like this at all.” This is negative argumentation, and more often than not their concern is not addressing these extreme degrees.

7) Don’t change the topic. This includes changing the subject matter completely, comparing the argument to something unrelated, or using unrelated events to argue against their position, or for your own.

8) Disagree with respect. It is good to know going into a conversation where you disagree with someone that you probably will not come out of that conversation having changed someone’s mind. That’s OK. This also means that you don’t have to have the last word. Be willing to keep the conversation open. This is difficult, as we live in a culture where we need things to come to a conclusion (and immediately, if possible). Remember: relationships are more important than being right. You will have more influence in a person’s life by showing love and respect to them, even when you disagree with them. We must “earn the right to be heard” through relational capital if we wish for them to come to a different conclusion.

9) Last, and most difficult: Be OK with being wrong. No one wants to be wrong, but, sometimes we are. This does not mean that in every disagreement there is a right and wrong conclusion. Sometimes two people can hold two different, yet equally valid, opinions. However, some of the most powerful words you can speak to someone is “I was wrong.” This, I have found, actually leads others to respect your beliefs and opinions more than arguing endlessly about something which is incorrect.

If we remember that people should come before our position, we will find a greater fruitfulness in our relations and the conversations which ensue. We should seek first a full understanding of where the other person is coming from before we speak in disagreement, setting aside our own agendas, and being humble and gentle in our response. This is not just good theological practice, it’s good Christian living.


2 thoughts on ““Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying”: The Importance of Conversational Hermeneutics

  1. Yeh. The most common is being able to say ‘I don’t know’ to questions, instead of shabbily trying to ‘reason’ an answer. A fake answer is not good integrity. Coupling it with ‘I was wrong’, will gain much respect from all participants and those who are observing and listening.

    • Eugene,

      I think the most important word you mentioned is “integrity.” There are 3 levels of communication. The first is what you say– that is, the actual construct of the sentence and its truth value. The second is how you say it, or, how you choose to communicate it (i.e. the emotional and physical aspects of the communication. And the last is how you are perceived by your hearer. You can say all the true things you want, and you can say it in the most charismatic and passionate way possible, but if the one(s) listening are not convinced that you have their best interests in mind or that you are someone who is trustworthy, then what you say will often fall on deaf ears. Humility is a huge aspect in integrity, as you have rightly pointed out. Thanks for your input! Always good to get your perspective!

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