It is one thing to hear, but another thing to listen. Good communication and healthy relationships depend upon not only hearing the words other people say, but on carefully listening to what they mean to communicate. To listen is to love.
But if we are honest, few of us are good listeners. It’s easy enough to hear others, but very difficult to truly listen to them. That may be particularly true and particularly important in the context of the local church where we are called to love one another, to care for one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. None of this is possible without good listening. David Mathis addresses this problem in his excellent book Habits of Grace and offers six lessons in good listening.
Good listening requires patience. We must not succumb to hasty or inattentive listening, but be willing to listen patiently and thoroughly. We must focus on the speaker and not on the inevitable distractions in our minds or in our environment. We must listen in such a way that we are not already planning what we will say to combat the speaker or to defend ourselves. “Good listening,” says Mathis, “silences the smartphone and doesn’t stop the story, but is attentive and patient.”
Good listening is an act of love. When we listen poorly, we are just waiting for the opportunity to cut off the other person so we can move on with our lives. “Poor listening rejects; good listening embraces. Poor listening diminishes others, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter.” Good listening is key to fulfilling so many of the ethical commands of the Bible, the greatest of which is love.
Good listening asks perceptive questions. The Proverbs offer many challenges here. They warn that the fool has no desire to listen, but only to blather out his own opinions, and that he answers long before he truly hears. “Good listening asks perceptive, open-ended questions that don’t just tee up yes-no answers but gently peel the onion and probe beneath the surface. It watches carefully for nonverbal communication, but doesn’t interrogate and pry into details the speaker doesn’t want to share. It meekly draws them out and helps point the speaker to fresh perspectives through careful, but genuine, leading questions.” In other words, it listens well enough to ask questions that will allow it to listen even more.
Good listening is ministry. We minister to others when we listen to them well. “There will be days when the most important ministry we do is square our shoulders to some hurting person, uncross our arms, lean forward, make eye contact, and hear his pain all the way to the bottom.” Sometimes people don’t need our answers as much as they simply need our attentiveness and our willingness to listen until they are done. Sometimes the therapy we offer is little more than a good listen.
Good listening prepares us to speak well. Which is to say, good listening allows us to respond with wisdom. Our silence when listening prepares us for wisdom when speaking. “While the fool ‘gives an answer before he hears’ (Prov. 18:13), the wise person tries to resist defensiveness, and to listen from a nonjudgmental stance, training himself not to formulate opinions or responses until the full account is on the table and the whole story has been heard.”
Good listening reflects our relationship with God. There is a connection between sloppy listening to other human beings and sloppy listening to God. Bonhoeffer warns, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.” If we are to listen to the voice of God as he speaks through Scripture, we must train ourselves by listening to the voices of other people. Our unwillingness or inability to listen to them should warn us about our unwillingness or inability to listen to Him.
Mathis concludes, “Good listening is a great means of grace in the dynamic of true Christian fellowship. Not only is it a channel through which God continues to pour his grace into our lives, but it’s also his way of using us as his means of grace in the lives of others. Cultivating habits of good listening may be one of the hardest things we learn to do, but we will find it worth every ounce of grace-empowered effort.” We will, indeed. Learning to listen well may not be easy, but it is surely rewarding.