How Do I Become a Better Listener?
You’ve heard the old joke: My wife told me I have two main faults. One is I’m not a good listener, and I don’t remember what the other one is.
Then there was the guy who was convinced that his wife needed hearing aids. So he devised a plan to test her. From the kitchen, he saw her sitting in the living room with her back to him. So he said in a normal tone of voice, “What are we having for dinner?” She didn’t seem to react or respond.
He sneaked up a little closer to her and repeated the question, “Honey, what are we having for dinner?” Still nothing.
Convinced he had made his case, he walked right up to the back of her chair and said, “Honey, what are we having for dinner?”
She turned with an annoyed look on her face, “I’ve answered you twice already! I said we’re having meatloaf!”
Are You a Good Listener?
Hearing loss not withstanding, do you listen well? Before you answer that, ask someone else who’s close to you. Go ahead and ask. I’ll wait…
(Insert ‘Final Jeopardy’ theme music here…)
So, when you asked this person who knows you well if they thought you were a good listener, did they stifle a laugh? Did they hesitate? Take too long to search for the right words? When they did answer, did you interrupt? Finish their thought for them? Get a little hurt or defensive when their assessment wasn’t quite what you thought?
Common sense and a little humility will reveal that most of us are not as good at listening as we think we are.
“Common sense and a little humility will reveal that most of us are not as good at listening as we think we are.”
We listen, but we listen in order to respond. We try to listen faster than they are talking and end up walking away before they’re done—or we try to finish their thought for them, cutting them off.
Turn the tables and you know what it feels like when you don’t feel like someone is really listening to you. There are some sure-fire ways to tell when you don’t have someone’s attention:
- They look at their phone, TV, or out the window.
- When they do respond, they make it about them.
- You can’t get any eye contact.
- They fidget, look around, or change the subject.
- They interrupt you because what you were saying reminds them of something that happened to them.
- They say, ‘Huh?’ way too often.
David Augsberger, professor of pastoral care and counseling, wrote, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.”
In contrast, being ignored or having someone’s partial half-hearted attention makes you feel unloved, not worth the time, trivial, or dismissed. We have all felt unloved by someone because we didn’t feel listened to.
“Being ignored or having someone’s partial half-hearted attention makes you feel unloved.”
On the other side of the coin, I’m sure there are more times than I care to admit when I have made others feel like they are a burden, that I’d rather be somewhere else, that I’m too busy to actually pay attention.
One painful memory of this involves an elderly lady in the church we served previously. There were several folks gathered around a table in our fellowship area a few minutes before worship was to start. I was walking through trying to get some last-minute things done when Roberta got my attention. I stopped and stood in front of her while she started telling me a story. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what she was saying because I was so distracted with the impending deadline of people gathering in the sanctuary. After a minute of me giving non-verbal cues that I needed to leave, she matter-of-factly said, “Jim, you just don’t have time to talk to me right now, do you?”
“Jim, you just don’t have time to talk to me right now, do you?”
It hurt, but it was true. I felt like I didn’t have time. But I didn’t communicate that very well. I could have just as easily took hold of her hand, looked her in the eye, and said, “Roberta, I would love to sit and chat with you. But church is about to start and we really do need to get in there. Could I come by later this week and pay you a visit?”
She would have been fine, I think. She would have felt better about that than how I made her feel when I wasn’t fully engaged.
So, listening well to other people is equal to loving them. We listen with our eyes as well as our ears. We listen with our hearts to hear what’s going on under the surface of their words. We listen without fear of their grief, sadness, or anger. Whatever they need to say can be heard and absorbed by us with the help of the Holy Spirit. And if anything needs said in response, it can be done without ego, pride, or a defensive spirit.
This is a lot to ask, and I am not saying I’m very good at it. But this is the life we’re called to as Jesus makes us more like Him.
And to be made more like Jesus, it’s imperative we spend time with Him. Listening to Him.
Listening to Jesus
Listening to Jesus is the only way we can truly be better listeners to others in the way I’ve just described. But how does one listen to Jesus? How do we have our ears/eyes/heart open to what God has to say?
Scripture has more than a few examples of people listening (or not) to God. We like to think that it must have been different for them back in “Bible Times.” Truly, there were times where God made Himself known in ways that could be more obviously seen, heard, or felt. But all the time?
I don’t know all the nuances of Elijah on Mt. Horeb, but one of the take-aways has to be that God’s active presence in the sound of sheer silence is enough to make a man cover his face, realizing he’s perilously close to holiness. The only right response is to stand there and wait for God in full submission and obedience.
If Romans 8 is right, the Spirit who caused Jesus to rise from the dead is at work in us. That too should give us pause. This calls for gratitude, that God would choose to make us His dwelling place. But it also calls for reverent fear not unlike what we see from Isaiah in Isaiah 6. When he was made aware of the presence of the Lord in the temple, he cried out and confessed not only his sin, but the sin of his people. True interaction with God on any level makes listeners out of us pretty fast.
“True interaction with God on any level makes listeners out of us pretty fast.”
So why is it, when we pray, we do all the talking?
Listening in Prayer
Among other things, prayer is listening.
Listening to God is just as important as talking to Him. And the more time we spend listening in prayer, the better we become at listening in everyday conversation with people.
Listening to God enables us to listen to someone else longer than we want to, or feel is necessary.
Listening to God equips us to listen for the heart behind the words someone else is saying.
Listening to God as we speak/respond helps us ask good follow-up questions in order to hear more. He helps us show compassion. He helps us know how to pray with people—out loud—before we leave.
Here’s a shortened version of all I just said.
- Praying to God means listening to God.
- Listening to God means we love God enough to be still before Him.
- Loving God means we learn to love people as He loves them.
- Loving people means listening to them.
- As we listen to people, we have all the more reason to pray to God, bringing their needs before Him. And the cycle starts over again.
Listening is anything but passive. There is a quiet confidence as we actively engage with God and with others without activity. It’s a mystery that is only confirmed to the extent that it is practiced.
So . . . once again . . . How good of a listener are you? With God’s help and our cooperation, let’s get better at it.