Last time I talked about “magic words,” words that, when we hear them, tempt us to jump to conclusions, and after that we end or block all real conversation.

How many times do you find yourself in discussions or arguments or debates where no one seems to make any progress?

For example, suppose I used the term “complementary” to describe the relationship of Adam and Eve. Then suppose the person I was talking to thought I meant “male headship,” because those promoting male headship sometimes use the word complementary to mean subordination of women. That is not at all what I meant.

There are several ways of dealing with this. Now that I know that word can be so easily misunderstood, I can seek a synonym. Unfortunately, I have been able to find any synonyms that convey the same meaning. Another way to deal with it is to say, “When I use the word complementary, I mean ‘combining in such a way as to enhance the qualities of each other.’ It neither implies or indicates that one is said is subordinate to the other.” That’s pretty cumbersome, and, as I indicated last time, some people simply stop listening after hearing the word “complementary.”

This demonstrates that there is no reliable solution on the part of the one who uses the term. That is to say, if someone stops listening after hearing the “magic words,” they won’t hear any definition or clarification. This does not alleviate the speaker or writer of all responsibility — we should all choose and use our words carefully — but it means that, of necessity, responsibility for clear communication is always more in the hands of the receiver.

That’s why I said we need to get over our superstitions about some of these terms. Instead of reacting to phrases and words that may have been employed in a destructive manner, listeners, certainly Christian listeners, have a duty to discover what their brother or sister actually intends to say. This is not a difficult process, but in this sinful world it does not appear to be a natural one.

The best summary of the process I have ever heard can be found in the book “How to Speak, How to Listen,” by the late Mortimer Adler. Back in the previous millennium, when I was a college freshman, it was often required reading, and for good reason.

As psychological studies on the topic have repeatedly indicated, most of us don’t really listen. That is to say, rather than hearing of the other party out, our minds are usually busy formulating a response — or more accurately, a reaction — while the person is still speaking. Our minds seem to anticipate that we will be in adversarial relationships. So the first step is simply hear the other person out.

Once you have heard what they have to say, find out if what you heard and what they thought they said, match. For example, a person hears me say the word complementary, they could respond by describing what I said, and comparing it to what they heard. It would go something like this: “I heard you describe the relationship between man and woman in Genesis as ‘complementary.’ When some people use that word, they mean woman was subordinate to man. Is that what you meant?”

My response would be that I meant that each supplied something that the other lacked in such a way as that the two were more capable than either alone. You might still disagree with me, but at least we would be talking about the same thing, and not wasting our time arguing over a meaning which I did not have in mind and did not intend.

How many times do you find yourself in discussions or arguments or debates where no one seems to make any progress? This lack of listening, and arguing past one another is one of the main reasons. Unless you take the time to clarify what the other person is saying, and they do the same with you, the chances are great that you are not talking about the same things, but you think you are. So the first step has to be getting rid of our superstitions about certain phrases or words, so that we can really hear what the other person is saying.