All of us have had those times when we’ve tried to share our hearts, explain our feelings, and have felt we were not heard. “Who really knows or understands me?” accompanies our failed effort to get to a deeper place. Likewise, we may have had those moments when we’ve walked away from someone and suddenly, a light goes on. “They were talking about this on the surface, but I think they were trying to tell me something else. Why didn’t I listen better?” This missing of each other’s deepest thoughts and needs is complicated by the highly charged times in which we are living. People seem to be ready to be mad and misunderstand each other so easily. Therefore, we do not truly hear what’s in the heart of others. If we could actively listen to each other, we might have more peace. How do we stop fighting and start listening? How do we develop better active listening skills to truly hear each other?
Listening Well Takes Determination
In the letter of James in the Bible, we hear this advice, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19 NIV)
Here we have the order that God intends for our conversations to follow. We should swiftly be ready to listen, hold our tongues rather than jumping in with “our side,” or with hastily arrived at judgments, and we should control our easy leap into anger. If we’re constantly poised to do battle with others’ opinions, we’re not truly in a posture to listen to them. If we’re so ready to get our “side” across, our listening skills still need sharpening.
But many would say, I do listen well. I do pay attention. But could you do better? Could we all do better?
There is a wonderful form of listening that is so attentive that even a stumbling or awkward speaker gets understood and heard. What do I mean? Beth Moore once used the phrase, “aggressive listening.” By “aggressive,” she meant that we are so focused on another’s speech and so kindly giving them room and space to say all they need to say, that we cannot possibly miss their meaning.
Nelle Morton, a theologian, said something similar when she spoke of “hearing others into speech.” Nelle said that our understanding of good communication usually goes like this: We believe that speakers should be so articulate and organized in thought and speech, that they will make themselves understood.
But what Nelle meant, instead, is that if we are good listeners, godly listeners, we will listen so intently and with such empathy that we will draw the speech of others out. They’ll feel safe enough to let their story tumble out any way at all because they know their listeners care and are deeply engaged. She put it this way in a journal entry from 1971:
“Hearing of this sort is equivalent to empowerment. We empower one another by hearing the other to speech. We empower the disinherited, the outsider, as we are able to hear them name in their own way their own oppression and suffering.” (from The Journey is Home)
She was talking about hearing the oppressed and disenfranchised. But her phrase, “hearing others into speech,” is useful for any conversation. We must do better at not cutting others off as they try to share with us.
Listening Well Takes Time
In this busy culture, where our time is so full and there are so many sources of information and conversation, we may feel pressed to “listen fast,” and then shoot back a reply, whether it’s a fired off email, a rapid tweet, or just jumping into the conversation with our thoughts, our response. But what happens as a result is that words and people get misunderstood. Arguments ensue. Grand, sweeping overreactions and wrong judgments come forth. Some of the threads on social media are astounding, aren’t they when we think of the accusations and assumptions people hurl at one another.
Last Sunday, the pastor at our church gave a wonderful piece of advice. He just said, “Pray before you post.” This is a vital way to stop fighting and start listening.
Listening Well Takes Love
A number of years ago, a retired pastor and his wife joined the congregation that I was leading. He was moving further and further away from his fundamentalist Baptist roots and more and more towards what would be called liberal theology. I, on the other hand, was moving away from my more liberal thinking youth to conservative theology and conservative perspectives on many issues. And I was going deeper into the charismatic expression of our Christian faith.
You would think the two of us would have clashed. I’ll admit sometimes my eyebrows were raised at some of Pastor Cal’s statements. I think his eyebrows were raised at some of mine. But he became one of my deepest supporters. If he didn’t understand where I was going with something, he loved me. I felt the same about him. He and his wife became two dear friends. We could talk about where we differed without abandoning or berating each other. It was so refreshing and so like heaven where all sorts of different people will gather around the throne.
What made this friendship and deep active listening possible was a decision on both our parts to get beneath words and understand how we each had arrived at our perspectives and why they were important to us. That commitment to love kept two very different people in the bond of friendship. We had no need to stop fighting and start listening because hearing and loving one another was the most important thing to us.
Active listening takes a determination to truly hear all of what the other person has to say. It takes thinking about it and perhaps speaking it back to the other person. “Am I hearing you right? Is this what you are saying?” It takes a commitment to care about discovering their deepest thoughts.
Loving people while debating ideas is the better way to live.