The Art of Listening
Part of being president of the United States is having happy confident facial expressions at social gatherings and enduring tedious things such as long reception lines. At one of these gatherings, it is said that Franklin Roosevelt decided to try a listening experiment. To each person in line he murmured “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” What was the response from guests? They said things like: “Marvelous!” “Keep up the good work!” “We are proud of you!” “God bless you sir!” Finally at the end of the line was a good listener – the ambassador from Bolivia. Not skipping a beat the ambassador leaned over and said, “I’m sure she had it coming.”
Good listeners are in short supply. Our busy schedules diminish our ability to take time to listen. Sometimes, like the guests in the reception line, our minds are on other matters – we are not “in listening mode.” Our basic human inclination to focus on ourselves rather than others causes a limited capacity to be a good listener. If we are brutally honest we have to admit that most of us would rather talk and be listened to, rather than discipline ourselves to listen patiently to someone else. Being a good listener is not passive, it is active. It is a concentrated unselfish effort to focus on the other person. So, why is it important to be an active listener?
We are to become imitators of Christ, and He makes listening a priority. God makes Himself available to us at any time, always ready to listen. Jesus listened attentively to those who sought Him. When people came to Him for healing or on behalf of another Jesus listened to their pleas. Did Jesus know the information already? Yes, of course. But in listening to those who came to Him, He showed visible care and compassion. He could have identified the person and said, “yes, I know what the problem is,” snap His fingers and perform the miracle. But He didn’t…he chose to listen to each person’s story before responding.
If we really want to help other people, we’d better be alert when they speak. James 1:19b says, “ But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” If we want to show care and compassion for those around us, we need to comprehend their feelings and their mind set. This is accomplished best through intently listening to what the person is saying. Sometimes it involves a couple of thoughtful questions, but the majority of information gathering and understanding is done through really hearing the other person’s words and observing their body language.
Active Listening communicates to the other person that they are important. Romans 15:2 says, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.” Animated conversation is fun, and there are plenty of times for give and take. But if we want to grow in our listening skills, we need to make a conscious decision to refrain from our quick comebacks or saying things that draw attention right back to ourselves. If we have a desire to communicate that the other person is important, we focus exclusively on the other person. We make a decision to not to top the other person’s story, not to have the last word, and not share everything we think we know about that particular subject. We give up our notion that we are authoritative on that topic and we acknowledge the other person’s feelings for what they are without elaborate commentary. Our eye contact, our posture, our facial expressions all contribute to expressing to that other person that what they are saying is important. With our countenance we communicate whether we are interested in what the other person has to say. We also communicate importance by respecting the other person’s time frame. If it’s evident they are finished sharing, we don’t pry. We take our cues from the other person and reflect their mood. Obvious respect in the area of listening communicates that we value that other person.
Our motivation for developing our listening skills comes from a desire to honor others as Christ commanded. Philippians 2:3-4 in the Message gives us a great perspective. “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (or an ear!)