I was working on an online class for school and I needed a video on being a good listener. I searched YouTube for something that related listening to the Christian life, so I typed into the search bar “Christian Listening.”
To my surprise, my search came up empty. There were dozens of videos on how to share the faith and how to talk to people, but nothing for Christians on how to listen to others.
As a recently graduated student in Spiritual direction, we were trained to listen to others carefully. It is a valuable and important skill, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. It certainly wasn’t taught in seminary! Even so, there’s a huge need for listening in the church.
Here’s some points on how to be a better listener:
- Give your undivided attention. Get in a quiet place where you can be alone.
Turn off electronic devices–tv, music, and internet Push the “mute” button on your phone. Nothing destroys the impression that someone is listening to you like taking a text or phone call and having them say “Wait! I have to take this now. This is important!” What they are actually saying is “This phone call is more is more important than me listening to you.”
Your biggest distraction is your mind. My mind is easily distracted, not by what is outside of it, but what is inside—our thoughts. As we try to listen to another, our mind goes to:
- What we’re doing later.
- What we should say back to them.
- Some memory triggered by what they just said.
- Our curiosity over unimportant detail.
- What’s wrong with their thinking.
- Our feelings or concerns.
A preoccupied mind is not listening. Listening is hearing what someone else thinks or feels.
Listening with our whole heart is not easy but anyone can learn to do it with prayer and practice.
- Learn their language.
Communication is a matter of words and images. Often, we discover that basic words may have a variety of different meanings. Think of loaded words like “love” “peace” freedom” “abuse” and the variety of ways they may be used. When a person speaks, they use words as they intend them, which is not necessarily the way we use them. Do not assume from a casual listening that you know what people mean. We need to listen hard sometimes to discover what words or symbols they are using.
Word meanings change according to time, place and usage. Don’t rephrase what they are saying or put it in your language. Avoid the helpful suggestions of language or imagery. Instead, let them say things in their way.
- Suspend judgement.
Suspending judgment isn’t the same as not judging. It just means setting judgment aside for a time, until you attain better understanding. This can sometimes be very hard. If a person reveals moral behavior, opinions, or language we find morally repugnant, it can feel like a blow to the chest. But why they say or do what they say may not be readily apparent. Remember that you are there not to judge, but to listen.
Some teachers and preachers would have you believe that the only approach possible when we discover a person’s sin is to confront it. But Jesus did not seem to agree with that. He freely listened to tax collectors, violent men, and even prostitutes without feeling a compulsion to confront them, either privately or publicly. He did not approve of their actions, but He did not feel any urgency to confront them privately or publicly. When He got the chance, He did call them on their sins, but He never rejected the person due to the sin. He waited for God’s time to speak, and did not allow His knowledge of their sins to keep him from loving them.
- Listen with both sides of your brain.
We’veall heard about “left brain-right brain” split. “Left-brain” people are supposed to be oriented to reason and order while “right-brain” people lean towards emotions and spontaneity. While the reality of this is questionable, it is generally accepted that some people are feeling-focused and other reason-focused. Even so, the truth is never so simple. We are all reasoning and emotional.
A good listener pays attention to both sides of the brain. Since feelings are important, we pay attention to when a person gets excited, or appear nervous or bored. Intellectual arguments may only be a smoke screen for uncomfortable emotions. If we are reason-focused, we may need to work at noticing emotional states. On the other hand, if we are too feeling-focused, we may underestimate the importance of ideas to others. Sometimes the issue itself matters as much as the feeling behind it. Trivializing or dismissing intellectual concerns can convey a sense of emotional superiority, a feeling that “merely intellectual” or “merely practical” concerns are not real. We are made of head and heart; and both are important to us all.
- Practice “reflective conversation”.
Reflective conversation means reflecting back what you hear to the person speaking. In thinking, it means restating ideas. It’s good practice when a person shares ideas to restate what you heard them say, to make sure you heard them correctly. This helps to avoid misunderstandings, and to deal with them quickly before they grow worse.
Reflective conversations are even more important in the area of feelings. Encourage people to talk about their feelings by stating the feelings you see: “I hear anger in what you are saying.” “You sound so happy” or “Are you sad today?” Shy or unemotional people may open up when they are confronted with their feelings.
- Resist the urge to teach, fix or correct.
In the Bible when Job’s life caved in due to a string of disasters, he was visited by four friends—Job’s comforters. At first they did well—sitting in silence with him for three days. Eventually, though they could not resist the urge to fix him, based on his string of misfortunes, they reasoned that he must have offended God. If he would just repent, his problems would go away. But Job had done nothing to offend God. Their attempts to fix him proved worthless and harmful.
We all love simple solutions, and we really want to help. But saving people isn’t our job—it’s God’s. If we stop to give advice, we have stopped listening and made ourselves their saviors. But humanity already has a Savior, and He is the only one we need. Neither are we the Holy Spirit, responsible for convicting people of sin and leading them to truth. When we try to do God’s job, we usually make a mess of things. It is far better and wiser to trust God, and not be compelled to fix problems that only He know how to solve.
So what do we do? This brings us to our next point
- Offer empathy, not advice.
Empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel. Jesus displayed perfect empathy when He “bore our sorrows and carried our pains.” God does not always deliver us from pain, but He empathetically responds by feeling all of what we feel. A good listener bears the pains of others empathetically. We may think a person’s pain is brought on by bad choices. But instead of judging the reasons or trying to offer a quick fix, God’s example calls us to do something harder–look their pain in the face, and share it with them.
Pain is pain, even when we feel it empathetically. So we try to avoid it. In our words, we trivialize it by saying “O, that’s nothing– I knew someone who had it worse!” Or, we avoid it by saying. “Christians shouldn’t feel that way. Just think about Jesus!” Or, we suggest a quick fix, “Go out and get busy and it will go away!” When people don’t take our encouragement or advice, we abandon them. Empathy is staying with a person and listening to their troubles even when it is unpleasant and uncomfortable.
- Turn them over to God in prayer.
Besides listening and empathy, there’s one more thing we can do–pray for them. You can’t fix another person’s pain, but God can. As you listen, lay them in the hands of God.
We can never be sure where or how God is working in another person’s life. We do not know the purpose of suffering, the outcome of their plans, or how God is working to draw them to Him. So don’t try to guess. Trust that God knows and is capable of working all things to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Don’t just listen to God for their sake. Listen for your own sake. Trusting Him will help you be a better listener.