Jordan Peterson, Rule 9, and Listening

Recently I read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I found the book to be remarkably insightful and filled with uncommon-common-sense. I also found the book to be lacking any concept of grace. The book is essentially a psychological, moral to-do-list. It’s a self-help book. While most of Peterson’s “to-dos” are things that would improve the lives of most folks, the book lacks any hope that there is a God in heaven who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The book lacks any promise that the gracious God of heaven is eager to forgive our sins because of the finished work of his Son. In sum, the book lacks grace and offers Peterson’s personal thoughts about a well lived life.

This isn’t surprising. After all, Peterson is a clinical psychologist. His job is listening to people and trying to help them move forward in positive ways. As a trained “listener,” Peterson does have helpful advice for regular pastors. It’s my observation that most people are bad listeners, and this truism applies to pastors. Our profession involves plenty of talking, and many of us struggle when it’s time to listen. This is where Peter’s Rule 9 is helpful. Early in the chapter he makes this observation about listening:

“In my clinical practice, I talk and I listen. I talk more to some people, and listen more to others. Many of the people I listen to have no one else to talk to. Some of them are truly alone in the world. There are far more people like that thank you think. You don’t meet them, because they are alone. Others are surrounded by tyrants or narcissists or drunks or traumatized people or professional victims. Some are not good at articulating themselves. They go off on tangents. They repeat themselves. They say vague and contradictory things. They’re hard to listen to. Others have terrible things happening around them. They have parents with Alzheimer’s or sick children. There’s not much time left over for their personal concerns.” (p. 234)

Peterson’s experience of listening sounds remarkably similar to a pastor’s experience of listening. The previous paragraph could easily have been written by a regular pastor who finds himself shepherding hurt and broken people. Since regular pastors will find themselves in the listening business, they would do well to learn from someone who gets paid to listen. Consider the following insights from a professional listener:

  • Listening helps you truly understand another person.
  • People will tell you lots of amazing things if you listen.
  • You often come across as intelligent when you listen.
  • Not all talking and listening is helpful or valuable.

This last insight is important, especially for regular pastors. There are all sorts of conversations that take place within a local church, and not all of them actually involve listening.

  • Some conversations involve one person seeking to establish dominance over another.
  • Some conversations involve one person “listening” while they wait for their turn to speak again.
  • Some conversations involve people trying to convince the other person that they are right.
  • Some conversations involve one person lecturing another person who isn’t listening at all.

In the end, Peterson recommends something called “mutual exploration.” He explains, “It requires true reciprocity on the part of those listening and speaking. It allows all participants to express and organize their thoughts.” (p. 253) This type of talking and listening involves two people who are willing to express their thoughts while recognizing that they have more to learn. This is the kind of listening that regular pastors must practice.