It is fascinating to watch a young couple in love. They have no problem communicating with each other, talking excitedly and enthusiastically by the hour. There are times when they both seem to be talking at once and we wonder who is listening. The fact of the matter is, they are both listening. They each seem to be such skilled communicators that they have an uncanny ability to talk and listen at the same time.
Then they get married and something changes. They begin to feel as though they have heard most of the interesting things the other has to say, or that they know most everything about the other there is to know. And quite frankly, they are not quite sure they like what they hear the other saying. So listening isn’t nearly as easy, exciting or important as it used to be. It doesn’t come automatically as it once did. Now it is work. It takes time and energy that they may not be willing to give. It is an art that must be continually cultivated and developed. They begin to lose the motivation and the inclination to listen to each other. And again we wonder who is listening.
As the old story goes, there was a time when he talked and she listened. On their honeymoon she talked and he listened. And now that they are settled down in their own home, they both talk and the neighbors listen. And if they don’t yell loud enough for the neighbors to hear, maybe nobody’s listening.
The problem not only exists in marriage. Our failure to listen to one another in all walks of life is one of our most serious hindrances to good interpersonal relationships. We can be looking someone straight in the eye, nodding agreement and grunting “Uh huh” while our minds are miles away—perfecting a golf swing, fretting over a lost contract, worrying about yesterday’s report from the doctor, hunting tigers on an African safari, planning tomorrow’s dinner or any one of thousands of options. We give only superficial attention to what is being said, or we miss it altogether.
Let’s face it, most of us would rather talk than listen. We consider listening to be a temporary and unpleasant interlude between opportunities to say what we want to say. Instead of giving attention to what others are saying, we often are thinking about what we are going to say next, either to amaze and amuse our friends, or to confound and convince our opponents. The result may be conversation, but it is not communication. We may be in a group, but we are not functioning as a Body. There is no true fellowship taking place. We are not learning to know each other better so we can minister more effectively to each other’s needs. We are just a group of isolated islands, each one crying out for someone to listen and to care. We can only build bridges to other people when we listen. We have said a great deal in this book about talking. Let’s think a little about listening.
Listening is hard work, admittedly. Some people speak so slowly we want to drag their words out of them. We think five times faster than the average person can speak, and that intensifies the problem of listening. Others speak so rapidly that they run their words together and we cannot understand them. Some speak so softly we can’t hear them. Others speak so loudly we’re embarrassed to be near them. Some talk about things that are irrelevant or illogical. Others drone on about trivial and insignificant matters that bore us. Some can’t seem to say what they mean. Others don’t know when to wrap it up. All in all, listening can be a drag.
Most of us could be more considerate of others when we speak and not abuse the favor they extend to us when they give us a listening ear. But those very people who are most difficult to listen to may be the ones who most need a listener, and God may be asking us to be those listeners. There are some things we cannot do, but if we have at least one functioning ear, we ought to be able to listen.
One of the greatest obstacles we will have to overcome in our quest to become good listeners is our early training and subsequent habits. As children, we may have been told to be quiet, to stop interrupting, to go away because Mommy and Daddy had no time to listen. And we got the idea that grown-ups don’t have to listen. Studies of school children have revealed that listening declines with each successive grade. It seems as though the older we get, the more we have on our minds to hinder our listening.
It also seems as though the older we get, the more we allow ourselves to be distracted by external factors—people walking by, noises, time pressures, the speaker’s personal appearance or annoying mannerisms. I can remember talking frequently to someone who would ask after every few sentences, “Do you know what I mean?” I found myself thinking more about that idiosyncrasy than about what he was saying.
Sometimes listening can be threatening to us. We fear that we may hear some criticism of ourselves that we would rather not have to confront, some change that we would rather not make, or some demand that we would rather not meet. We may hear an idea that challenges some precious opinion of ours that we would rather not give up. Our best defense is to stop paying attention. We may simply feel that it will take too much effort to understand what is being said to us, so we take the easy way out and turn off our mental hearing aids. It is too much trouble to listen. So why bother?
Why bother? That is a good question. Let’s try to answer it.
If I were to suggest one good reason for cultivating the art of listening, it would be found in 1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and every one who loves is born of God and knows God.” Listening is an important and necessary expression of love. Love is giving of ourselves unselfishly, sacrificially and unconditionally to meet the needs of those to whom it is expressed. And one universal human need is the need to be understood. We want to be assured that somebody knows us, is sensitive to what is happening inside us, feels what we are feeling in the deepest part of our being, and still accepts us and cares for us. It is impossible for anyone to do that except one who truly listens to us. Listening says, “I care about you. You are important enough to invest all the time and effort that is necessary for me to understand you.”
So love listens. We can say with our mouths over and over again, “I love you,” but it is meaningless unless we are willing to put aside other things and give of ourselves unselfishly to discern the deepest needs of the ones we profess to love. True love is focused on the benefit of others rather than our own benefit, and that means trying to understand them. We all want so desperately to be understood, but God is asking us to take the time to do the understanding.
Some husbands and wives feel totally misunderstood. They have tried to communicate to their mates their thoughts, feelings, needs, longings and desires, but they have received little response. Their mates have been too preoccupied with other things such as the newspaper, television, housework, other friends, hobbies or work. Then one day they meet someone who is genuinely interested in what they have to say, and they allow themselves to be drawn into an intimate relationship. The third party may be less attractive than their mates, but that makes no difference. They think they have met someone who cares and that is of supreme importance to them. It is sin! No rationalization on earth can make it right. It brings with it a new set of problems and heartaches, usually worse than they had before. But that doesn’t matter to them. They now feel loved and accepted and understood, and that is what matters most to them. That is the awesome power of the listening ear.
People will often go to a professional counselor because they know he will listen. It is not that they need advice so much as they need someone who will listen to them with keen interest and undivided attention, someone who will draw them out and help them understand themselves. It doesn’t bother them that the counselor costs money. They need that listening ear and they have not been able to find it in their mates or other Christian friends.
I read about a coffee house in San Francisco that has soundproof booths, where for a stipulated hourly fee a patron will be provided with someone who will listen. Business has been good. People want to talk, express their opinions, give advice, offer quick, easy solutions. But few are willing to take the time to listen and to understand. Understanding a person does not necessarily mean total agreement with him. It means feeling what he is feeling, seeing the situation through his eyes, and sympathizing with him.
This is one way by which the members of the Body of Christ can minister to each other. It is impossible for vocational pastors to meet this need in the life of every believer in a congregation. But we can all minister to one another in this way. We don’t need a great deal of training to be good listeners, to ask leading questions and encourage people to talk. We just need to do it. By listening, we can bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). By listening, we can demonstrate Christlike love. Are you willing to try it? If so, you will need to know what it involves.
The Apostle James gave us one of the classic biblical statements on listening. “But let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). He had just introduced the subject of God’s Word, pointing out that we have been born again by the Word of truth (v. 18), and he is about to encourage us to be doers of the Word and not hearers only (v. 22). So in its context, the verse deals basically with listening to God’s Word. Keeping our mouths closed and listening to God’s Word will guard us from angrily defending ourselves or denouncing those who disagree with us.
But in this exhortation about God’s Word, James has touched on a vital principle of good interpersonal communication. More listening to each other, and more thought before we answer will result in less anger and less conflict. So be quick to hear and slow to speak! In other words, make listening a high priority in your life. Do it without delay, without having to be begged; do it with zeal and enthusiasm.
Examining the parallels between listening to God’s Word and listening to one another can be quite helpful. To begin with, good Bible study seeks to discover what God means by the words He has revealed, not the meaning we want to attach to them. Good listening does the same. Our aim is to understand what other people mean by the words they use, not what we think they mean or want them to mean. We have a natural tendency to fill their words with meaning colored by our own background, experience, mind-set, or preconceived viewpoint, and we need to understand that tendency.
For example, Solomon told his bride her hair was like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead (Song of Solomon 4:1). That meant something beautiful to her. Visualize if you can a large flock of goats descending the distant hillside in a lovely flowing motion. She understood that. If you tell your wife today that her hair is like a flock of goats, she probably won’t speak to you for weeks. She will hear it from her modern-day frame of reference and read all kinds of horrible things into it, unless she understands the biblical picture and is willing to hear your words in that light.
Real listening does not just hear words, but endeavors to understand the meaning of the message intended by the speaker of those words. We may be able to repeat the person’s exact words back to him and still not understand their meaning. A parrot can repeat words. But parrots are not very good listeners. Real listening hears people and what they mean, and so builds understanding between them. Isn’t that what you would like to do? How then can we be quick to hear?
Give your undivided attention. James suggested how we ought to listen to God’s Word. “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). The word look means literally “to stoop down beside.” There is to be an intensity about the way we search God’s Word. We need to listen intently to each other as well. That probably means we will not be able to listen acceptably while we’re watching the ball game, reading the newspaper, running the vacuum cleaner or straightening up the living room. Undivided attention will require eye contact. If we keep looking at other things, glancing at the clock on the wall or tapping our fingers, we are communicating a lack of interest in what is being said. As we have seen, our body language speaks louder than our words. What someone wants to say to us is important enough for us to put aside whatever else we are doing. What a wife wants to say to her husband may even be important enough to warrant his turning off the ball game, as outlandish as that may sound to the average husband. If it is impossible for us to give undivided attention at the moment, then we should set a time when we can, and subsequently follow through with it.
Undivided attention will also require us to keep our minds from wandering. Just as we are to abide in God’s Word, persevere or continue in it (James 1:25), so we should rivet our minds securely to the person who is speaking to us and abide in what he is saying. That may not be easy. We are prone to take mental excursions to places more interesting. But we can discipline ourselves to pay attention if we choose to. Visualizing what the person is saying, putting ourselves in the scene he is describing, or trying to feel what he is feeling will help us sense the importance he attaches to it, and will make it easier for us to concentrate on it.
Don’t interrupt. “Slow to speak” is also a necessary part of good listening. Oftentimes we think we know what the other person is going to say, so we jump in and finish his sentence for him. Unfortunately, we may miss his point entirely and our interruption only serves to confuse the issue. We may also be quick to express our disagreement, or to offer advice before we have fully understood the problem. We have previously referred to Solomon’s assessment of that bad habit. “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Have you seen the poster that says, “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s somebody talking while I’m interrupting”? It may get a chuckle, but probably it reflects a sad slice of reality in our own thinking.
We interrupt in more subtle ways as well. Even something as insignificant as a look on our faces can say, “Oh brother, here we go again. How many times do I have to listen to this?” That stifles communication and builds resentment that may someday erupt in conflict. Sometimes we interrupt a conversation in order to do something we think is important, but which could wait until later. The telephone has probably cut off more profitable communication in our house than any other single thing. There may be times we should let it ring, or answer it and ask if we can call the party back, or just leave it off the hook. If God wants us to listen to each other, we will need to put a high priority on it.
Listen non-defensively. Some of us would rather not listen because we’ve already made up our minds on the subject, or we anticipate some criticism, or some demand for change. So we cut the speaker off, change the subject to something more to our liking, or raise our defenses before he ever finishes. That hardly expresses the love of Christ. Just as we should be doers of God’s Word and not hearers only, so we should be open to accept new information from other people that differs from our own long-cherished views, and willing to consider making changes that God may want us to make. In other words, we should consider doing it as well as hearing it.
We all have traditional ways of thinking and traditional habits that we dearly cherish. We have long been convinced that there is no way but our way, until we are challenged by someone who is convinced that his way is better. In a marital relationship, money is just such a common area of contention. One mate believes the husband should pay the bills, while the other feels that it is perfectly all right for the wife to assume that responsibility. One mate is convinced that every spare penny should be saved, while the other feels that after paying the bills and giving to God’s work, it is acceptable to spend some on family entertainment. They may argue over those issues for years, when an open mind and a non-defensive posture could bring compromise.
Vacations are another notorious area of differences. One loves the mountains while the other loves the beach. One likes to camp while the other prefers to stay in a hotel room where the beds are softer and the water is warmer. One wants to keep on the go and see everything there is to see, while the other wants to stop and relax and do nothing. All attempts to share their feelings or give reasons for their preferences are met with angry resistance and a column of logical arguments. But that is hardly Christ-like love. Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5). Love not only hears others out without interruption, but it is sensitive to their feelings, considerate of their opinions, open to what they say, and willing to consider making changes for their benefit. That says, “I care about you.”
If we disagree with what is being said, it might be better to ask for clarification than merely to express our differences immediately, and then try not to give an answer until we are able to communicate the meaning of the other person’s statement to his satisfaction. When we finally are able to restate his position in a way that is acceptable to him, we may find that our disagreement has been dissolved. Good listening that asks questions and requests clarification also may help us keep our anger level down, just as James suggested. Being quick to hear and slow to speak will help us also to be slow to wrath.
Say something. Some of us husbands are notorious for not responding at all. We meet our wives’ attempts to communicate with total silence. While silent wives seem to be a rarer species, there are some around. We all know that silence may be golden, and there may be times when two people just want to enjoy each other’s company without saying a word. Solomon said there is a time to speak, and to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7). But silence as a response to being spoken to can be ambiguous. It could communicate anger, disagreement or defiance on one hand, but understanding, acceptance or consent on the other. It may mean “I don’t think you’re worth listening to,” or it simply may mean “I don’t know what to say.” But inevitably it will be interpreted to mean, “I don’t care what you’re saying.” And that hurts. To say something will at least let people know we are listening and that we care.
Say something like, “I understand what you are saying.” Or “I can appreciate that.” Or “It sounds to me like you …” and then recapitulate what you think the other person has said. That is his clue that you are interested and want to hear more. And that is the loving thing to do. When we truly love one another, we won’t be asking any longer, “Who’s listening?” It will be obvious that we all are listening to one another, that we want to understand each other and get along with one another, and so glorify our Lord.