Sounds Bytes and Nuances

By Jamie Harms

A few weeks ago, my family was invited to be a part of a conversation with Tony Dungy, a sports commentator and retired NFL coach. We showed up to the event where I was expecting to watch a video that Tony had produced and have a discussion. To my surprise and the delight of my football-loving sons, Tony was there in person for conversation regarding racism and the world in which we live. He shared his experience growing up and working in a secular environment with wisdom and humility as he continues to live out his faith through his words and actions. One piece of wisdom that I took away from our time was something he learned as a sports commentator speaking in front of millions of people. 

While working for NBC, Tony said that his producer once told him that the first thing you say is the only thing the audience will hear. He learned the truth of this statement first hand after he made the mistake of saying that he did not think a certain player was good enough for a given task. He followed that statement up with reasons, but the papers and twitter feeds erupted with the news that Tony Dungy did not think this person was a good enough player for the job even though that is not really what he said. But, it was only this first sentence that was repeated. Tony is not alone in this experience, as even this week a dear friend of mine asked for prayer due to the response of others on Facebook. They focused on her first words, but not the rest of her post or the heart behind it. Sound bites without nuanced conversation can produce frustration and hurt for both the speaker and hearer.

So how do we approach a world full of sound bites in the form of news headlines, tweets, Facebook posts, and protest slogans? During the discussion with Tony, someone specifically asked how he deals with our sound bite culture. His response was calculated and grounded in Scripture – listen, pray, then respond. He does not run away from engagement with sound bites but when asked how he chooses his words especially after the incident regarding his view of a player, he said that you have to listen to those in the conversation, prayerfully think about what is being said, and sometimes take a considerable amount of time before responding. 

I appreciated Tony’s godly response as he puts into practice James 1:19-20 which says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Before we speak, we must truly listen. Active listening involves hearing what the other person is saying in order to understand them and what they are communicating. We listen not just so we can respond with our own agenda but instead to connect with our listener, not to provoke them, but to speak the truth in love.

The second thing that Tony mentioned was a prayerful response. This reminded me of what we read in Psalms 141:3 this week: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth: keep watch over the door of my lips!” When we realize that we as Christians are sinners in need of a Savior because our hearts are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), and that our words reveal the depth of our sinful heart (Luke 6:45), we see the great need to pray before we speak. Our prayer before we speak starts with confessing the sin in our own hearts (I John 1:9) and entreating our Father for wisdom which he gives to those who ask (James 1:5) before we make a response. 

After listening and prayer, we aim to give a response that is full of grace and seasoned with salt so that we know how to answer everyone like Paul instructs in Colossians 4:6.  Words are powerful and have the opportunity to build others up or tear them down. Once said, we cannot take them back, so as Christ followers in a fallen world, let us remember to listen, pray, and respond with grace and truth.