“If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking them questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.”
It’s easy to underestimate (and hard to overstate) the power of great listening. To temporarily put our lives aside in order to hear the depths of another human soul is precious indeed. What might happen if we slowed down long enough to hear ourselves think? What might happen if we slowed down long enough to hear others think? It’s a sacred thing, this ability to hold pieces of hearts as we pass truth back and forth, chewing and pondering and sipping our coffee.
A major facet of self-awareness is discovering what kind of listeners we are. Like most of the topics we’ve discussed, there are bright places and shadow sides here, and one must muster sufficient courage to face them both.
Here’s a fabulous inventory to help gauge your present listening skills. Note any that apply:
- I make a great effort to enter others’ experience of life.
- I do not presume to know what someone is trying to communicate.
- My close friends would say I listen more than I speak.
- When others are angry with me, I am able to hear their side without getting upset.
- People share freely with me because they know I listen well.
- I tune in not only to what others say but also to their nonverbal cues, body language, tone of voice, etc.
- I give people my undivided attention when they are talking to me.
- I am able to reflect back and validate another person’s feelings with empathy.
- I know my primary defensive mechanisms when I am under stress (such as placating, blaming, problem-solving prematurely, or becoming distracted).
- I am aware of how the family in which I was raised has influenced my present listening style.
- I ask for clarification when I don’t understand rather than attempting to fill in the blanks.
- I never assume, especially negatively.
- I ask questions when listening rather than trying to read minds.
- I don’t interrupt or watch for openings to get my point across when another is speaking.
- As a listener, I am aware of my own personal ‘hot buttons’ that cause me to get angry, upset, fearful, or nervous.
12-15: outstanding listener
8-11: very good listener
5-7: good listener
0-4: poor listener
Don’t forget the gospel here. If you scored a 15, God doesn’t love you more. If you scored a 0, God doesn’t love you less. We are still invited into being with Jesus and being like Jesus no matter what kind of listeners we are at this moment. The cross allows us to engage in freedom and joy with nothing to prove.
As we take steps forward in the ministry of listening, it’s nice to know what exactly we should be listening for (besides the obvious). Some major items include emotional terms, beliefs about self/God, clues about backstory and wounding, favorite idols, core values, and standards they have for themselves/others. These are the “red flags” to pay special attention to as we learn about the souls we’re called to shepherd for even a few minutes. The point is not to judge accurately but to love well.
Some common roadblocks might need to be addressed if we’re going to honor others and hold their presence in high esteem:
- Asking poor questions (that don’t encourage opening up and expanding)
- Answering your own questions
- Planning your responses
- Unresolved personal issues
- Self-absorption in your own thoughts
- Anxiously awaiting an opportunity to launch into autobiographical storytelling
- Bad body language and poor eye contact (if face to face)
- Presumption that you know what they are going to say
- Arrogance that you know the root issue and the “right” answers
- Pat/trite comments that discount, ridicule, or minimize their problems
- Laughing at or yawning (literally and metaphorically)
One of my biggest hangups when it comes to making room for others to be heard is mental preoccupation with self. Should I mention this thing? How should I state that? I probably worded that last part wrong. Oh, no—I have no clue what to say! I’m going to look like an idiot! All while maintaining eye contact and nodding. If I’m completely wrapped up in how I look or how I sound or what I should say, there’s little energy left over to honestly care for the other person. Though I didn’t mean to, I’ve turned a child of God into an object on which I can prove my worth. This is when it’s helpful to stop and ask myself: am I here to feel wise and impressive, or am I here to help her not feel alone and unimportant?
When we listen well, we’re validating a heart that may not even take itself seriously. Your soft eyes, warm smile, and leaning in just a bit echo the love of Christ into a tender place. If you’ve ever shared a struggle you were ashamed of, you know how fragile it feels. Fears, hurts, needs—the world looks down on them all, cries out against their weakness. But this is not the way of the gospel. We know that God’s power is made perfect in those hollow spots, so we champion those who hold their hearts out, broken, bruised, and beautiful.
NOTE: The listening inventory and roadblocks were adapted from the pre-homework for Parakaleo’s coaching training for church planters’ wives. You can check out the website here.