Learning to listen requires intention.
It is possible, when it is our turn to hear someone else, we have everything but the intention of listening. This small essay looks at listening in relation to dialog or interaction with another person. I’ll write a bit about listening to lectures and teachings another day.
Intention. This means that we want to hear and process what is being said as our purpose or plan. Listening on purpose means that it is our goal to hear and understand what is being said. If we do not listen with this intention, then nothing else really matters.
Here are a few thoughts I wrote down on how to listen with intention.
Humility. This means that we cannot approach listening as though we already know what someone is going to say. We also have to make sure we are not condescending in our ears. I can catch myself in this error often by reading body language wrongly. Reminding myself that I do not know what people mean until I heard their explanation is vital to good listening and honestly, good relationships.
Neutrality. This means that we must approach listening as if we don’t have a position for or against what we are hearing. While we likely have opinions on a subject, we cannot listen if we are listening through the lens of our bias. Maturity and wisdom allow for hearing contrary dialog on a matter without engaging our rebuttals during the listening process. If a particular idea requires a thoughtful response, it is better to make a note (mental or otherwise) and approach it as a new subject after we’ve heard everything else.
Completeness. This means that we need to absorb everything that is being said without getting distracted by soundbites or one-off phrases or words that trigger thoughts. Our thoughts cannot derail the ears of our minds. If someone talks for twenty minutes about a subject and offers a few seconds of non-vital anecdotes or misapplied remarks, we must keep focused on the subject and wait until everything has been said before inviting thoughts on another subject. It does help with the talking being a little more focused.
Understanding. This means that we are to seek to understand and if necessary, ask for further explanation. Of course, as just mentioned, we must wait until the other person is finished speaking in order to inquire about clarity. If we keep interrupting, we are not hearing and we are not understanding. A phrase that I often use is, “Help me understand what you mean when you say.” Another is, “I heard you say _____, do you mean _____ when you say that?” “What examples could help me understand this more?” Remember, humility and neutrality in listening requires us to not assume or assert what another person means.
Acceptance. When we get all the information. When we hear as a goal to understand and humble clarify, then we must accept the outcome of the hearing. We can either agree or disagree but there is no logical reality in which one agrees to disagree. That’s like saying that we are unable to agree and that is all we have in common. John Wesley, the historical theologian, coined the phrase when writing about the death of George Whitfield, whose theology was in complete contrast to his own. While Wesley coined the idea in an attempt to show respect to Whitfield, the use today is not about respect but typically in frustration as a parting shot to end discussion. To accept what we hear does not mean we hold to the conclusion. We have to accept what we hear as what is intended to be said. We are not psychics, so we must not act as one.
Patiently. This means that sometimes matters of importance will take time to hear and discuss. We must listen before we think and not respond too quickly. So, when time is up, we are able to go about our lives and schedule more conversations in the futre. Most of us have seen online conversations go on and on for days as if these people had nothing else to do. Childish antics like these are marks of ignorance and disrespect. It also reveals a lack of patience when we have delayed back-and-forth on social media. Anyone who insists on ping-pong immediacy doesn’t know how to listen and it’s worth talking to until they learn to sit still. So, we need to make sure we are patient.
Be Quiet. Listening is something that we all must learn. It is also something we most hone and craft. I look at listening as an artform. Many have mastered the art of speaking or teaching but few have ever mastered listening. Scripture reveals not only in commands this vital virtue, but as way of practical wisdom it is mandatory. We should speak less, if at all.
I have had millions of conversations in my lifetime and I bet we’ve all heard as many. The nature of listening includes the idea of not talking at all. Sometimes wise listening ends in a thank you and not a response or alternating opinion. I have taken the attitude that when I need to discover something or engage an issue I will schedule two meetings or calls with a person. The first is an interivew. I will ask some questions and then let the other person talk. Afterward I will thank them for their time.
After time to think, pray, and listen more on what I heard, I can then meet again to discuss. At this meeting I insist that they listen to me this time. This is where things typically go ary for impatient people who have never learned to listen past preschool. I don’t apologize for the remarks about childish behavior. Scripture also calls this stuff childish and the Apotle James calls it demonic.
While listening is not just for believers and this article is not written just to Christians, it reinforces that there is great wisdom in listening and at the end of the day, those who listen well, love the most.
Love. This is where the difference is made. Even our enemies are to be loved and there is no greater starting place than to seek to hear, understand, and help those around us.
With this new political season starting, now would be a good time to listen well.
Are you listening?