Several times in the past couple of weeks, the subject of listening has come up.
One instance was during a meeting where someone shared how listening to the concerns of other stakeholders in a process is vital to them being willing to join the effort and has an equal benefit of bringing a lot of good ideas forward.
Another occasion (okay, it was more than one occasion), was with my own family where it was evident that someone needed to be heard rather than fixed or told what to do.
So, I find myself thinking about my own listening skill. Yes, I called it a skill. Unlike strength, athletic ability, or any particular type of mental acuity, everyone can be a good listener.
I am struggling to be a better listener. Unfortunately, I haven’t been practicing very long. I spent most of my first 48 years listening in order to respond instead of listening to understand. My journey over these last few years has made listening to understand much more important to me. I still have to be intentional about it, and I know I fail often.
However, it turns out I don’t have to be naturally empathetic, particularly educated, and don’t even need to like the other person in order to be a good listener. I just have to shut up long enough to hear what the other person is saying.
I know, we tell our children not to say “shut up.” But that’s exactly what we need to tell ourselves sometimes. Shut up. And I don’t just need to shut up externally; I need to shut up that voice in my head that is telling me what to say next, or convincing me the other person is wrong or mistaken, or is reminding me of that project I need to get back to or the phone call I need to make.
Until we can shut up and focus on the other person, we aren’t really listening. And because we are going to hear what someone says through our own filters and bias, we need to ask clarifying questions like, “I heard you say that you are feeling overwhelmed by this process. Is that true?” or, “I am not sure I understand what you mean when you say John is ‘hard to take.’ Could you be more specific?”
You might have heard the joke about the father and young son riding in the car one day. Out of the clear blue, the son asked, “Dad, where did I come from?” The father expected this question to come up at some point, but like most of us, was not fully prepared to handle it right then. So he tried to give a high-level answer in hopes it will satisfy the boy: “Son,” he said, “when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, they want to share that love with someone else. So they have a special time together, and then a baby is born. Your mom and I love each other, and we love you too.” Feeling pretty good about his response, the dad looked at his son to see how he would react. The boy turned to him and said, “I know you and mom love me. But Jimmy says he’s from Chicago, and I just wondered where I’m from.”
Funny, but there is an important moral to this story. When we listen to answer, we often miss the real question. Likewise, when we listen to fix or solve, we often miss the real issue, concern, thought, or struggle.
Listening to others makes us better at community.
Listening to God makes us better at life.
Jesus had a practice of getting up early in the morning and going off alone to pray. He got away from the distractions and noise, and I get the sense reading my Bible that he listened more than he talked.
For most of my life, I didn’t understand how to listen to God. I never heard an audible voice that I could claim was God. No angels ever visited me to give me a message from the Lord. I can’t recall seeing or speaking to a prophet. So how could I possibly “hear” God?
I used to study the Bible to be able to tell other people what it said. I read it to create a database of facts I could use in discourse. I “knew” a lot about the Bible but didn’t really understand much at all. I wasn’t listening.
Now I practice listening to the Bible, trying to hear what it says rather than thinking about what I can do with that information. I let it point out where I still need to grow and change.
I think listening to God and listening to people are very much the same. I need to shut up and hear what is being said, not what I want to hear. I need to understand what is meant, not what I would like the meaning to be. I need to allow what I hear to change me, not try to change who I hear.
If you have something to say, I’m listening.