65. Learning to Listen

by Jun 17, 20242024

The story is told of President Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were finally heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

This amusing story is good for a chuckle, but it’s also a good example, in a lighthearted way, of a serious problem that afflicts many of us. We are not good listeners! I have heard this admission from more than a few of my friends and acquaintances. This story points out something of which we need to be aware as we interact with the people around us; there is an important difference between hearing and listening. All the well-wishers who stood in line to shake the president’s hand, except for the last one, were guilty of this in spades. They heard Mr. Roosevelt speak, but they did not perceive what he said. In this specific instance, it was likely a result of being star-struck. But most of us are guilty of this in our daily interactions with others.

Jesus, while teaching his followers using parables, often said “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). Jesus used this phrase to get the listener’s attention. He was telling them to carefully consider what he was saying. For them to appreciate the message that was in the teaching required thoughtful listening. He wanted them to understand, not just hear his words. I believe that Jesus was also touching on a problem shared by all human beings; hearing words but not listening carefully to the message.

Hearing vs. Listening

There is a significant difference between hearing and listening. The physical act of hearing is passive. It is easy and requires little from us, while listening is active and intentional. It requires effort. The book of Proverbs provides us with an understanding of the active and intentional involvement of real listening, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,” says Proverbs 20:5, “but a man of understanding will draw it out.” When we take the time to listen well, we can participate in the most meaningful parts of another person’s life, as well as our own.

Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another person in the issues of their life. God wants more of us than just our good listening, but not less. There will be days when the most important ministry will be to get face-to-face with a hurting person, look him or her in the eye, and listen to their pain. This is the essence of compassion. Professor and pastor Dallas Willard had this to say, “Compassion is the willingness to feel the need of other people.”

Listening is Love’s Best Friend

The God of love calls you and me to be His hands and heart to those He puts in our path. And this love begins by giving attention. Listening is giving attention. Hear the words of German, Lutheran Pastor, and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Just as love to God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” When we listen to others, we acknowledge and affirm them. We attest to their worth as persons and offer them healing. This posture of intentional and compassionate listening is to be the calling of every person who follows Christ.  The Bible tells us that, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV). The New Testament Greek word for quickmeans to “be ready”. The word for listen means “to hear with understanding”. So, when James tells us to be quick to listen, he is saying that we should be ready to listen and understand the needs of others.

Since listening to others is something to which we are all called, it’s important for us to understand how listening builds up and to be aware of some behaviors and attitudes that hinder the act of listening well.

What Listening Does

  • Listening demonstrates love and value for others.
  • Listening builds trust and strengthens relationships.
  • Listening fosters empathy and compassion.
  • Listening helps with conflict resolution.
  • Listening contributes to better decision making.
  • Listening enhances learning and knowledge.
  • Listening is key to successful mentoring and coaching.

Cautions and Guidance

  • Be fully present when you’re listening. Remove distractions that would divert your giving attention.
  • Listen to understand, not to respond.
  • Withhold judgments and advice unless appropriate.
  • Practice not giving your opinion or sharing a similar experience of your own. Listening is “other-focused”.
  • Avoid “bottom line” listening. Listen with patience. Eliminate the desire to hurry through the conversation. Let it run its course.
  • It must not be your goal to “fix” the other person. They may just need to be heard.
  • Avoid getting “caught up” in any particular word or statement. See the whole person and picture.
  • Don’t interrupt when the other person is speaking. Interrupting says, “you are not important” and “I don’t really care about you and what you have to say”.
  • Remember, the person you are listening to is not a problem to be solved but a life to be valued.

Be a Better Listener

Although we would all agree with James that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, it’s not unusual for us to be slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry. And for many of us, this negative pattern has become deeply seated. As a result, listening well may not be natural to us. While improving in our listening will require some discipline and a heavy dose of intentionality, there is truly no better way of interacting with others. I encourage you to take some time to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider your call to listen and all its wonderful benefits. And then purpose in your heart, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to give others the gift of being truly heard. By God’s enabling grace, you can achieve incremental growth in learning to listen well.