Pings on our phone, sirens, voices, music: every day there are many things we hear.
But we understand that hearing is more than random sounds entering the ear canal and registering somewhere in the brain. Really hearing someone (or something) requires thought and active attention.
In the previous post, we saw that when you take the time to develop a positive relationship with someone, you are setting the stage for serious listening and meaningful helping.
One key aspect of active listening is attending carefully to a person, giving them the gift of your time and focused attention. In this post, we’ll look at two more aspects of active listening: hearing and responding.
I Hear You
Sometimes when we are listening to a person speak, we are busy gathering the facts and history of their life. In conversation we cover basic questions: What do you do? Where did you grow up? What is your family like? These matters can seem mundane, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. If you are listening to someone well, the way that a person talks about their parents, their current job, or their plans for the next year, can be very revealing. And “gathering facts” sets the stage for going deeper.
Going deeper is difficult. The human mind and heart are incredibly complex, an intricate web of memories, aspirations, fears, regrets, plans, and character flaws. We all have moments when we must admit that we don’t know why they do things, or why we feel a certain way. And that’s when things are going well, and a person is enjoying a stable life! When a person is unsettled, the symptoms of an unwell heart are wildly diverse.
Consequently, a person who is trying to unpeel the layers and get a glimpse of the truth is faced with a great challenge. It’s a daunting task, seeking to understand people who are aching and broken and despairing. A good listener can be like a detective at times, unearthing clues and putting things together. You should be using your ears, but also your eyes, considering the message communicated by a person’s posture, gestures and facial expression.
And then the words: when a person speaks, we want to try and hear what is on their heart. The Bible teaches us that the heart is the wellspring of life (Prov 4:23), and that from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34). So we should try to sound out the person’s wellspring.
· Listen for signs of life: What is a person thankful for, scared about, or tired of?
· Listen for what is important to someone: Over the course of the conversation, what do they keep finding opportunity to mention?
· Follow the feelings: What excites them, and what parts of life do they find difficult?
· Listen for what a person says, but also omits: Does it sound like a person has no problems and no struggles? Then dig a bit deeper.
When we’re listening to someone, we don’t have to be afraid of silence. Most of us dread the awkward silence that lasts for more than three seconds. But if you’ve been listening, and a person has been speaking, and it almost feels like they’re about to say something revealing—wait. And then wait a bit more.
Understand that a person might be summoning the courage to share something painful, or they might simply be collecting their thoughts. Don’t ruin that by jumping in with your comments, or by changing the subject. Indeed, when we’re hearing someone, we need a couple more warnings.
1) Beware of Bias: We’re all biased people. No one is fully objective, so we come to every interaction with pre-conceived ideas. But we should work hard to set aside our expectations and prejudice, because if we’re listening for the good, we’ll hear it, and if we’re listening for the bad, we’ll hear it—and then we’ll probably miss something important. Bias means that we expect certain people to be a certain way, based on past experience. We know their family, we’ve seen this kind of situation before, so we reach our conclusions quickly. But our bias can short-circuit a conversation.
2) Don’t Preach: Remember the wise owl, “The more he saw, the less he spoke; the less he spoke, the more he heard.” In helping others, we will need to speak. But we should be cautioned against excessive talking and advice-giving. We say things like, “This is what you should do. Have you tried this?…” We take out our counselling tool-box, and we start trying out different solutions.
This is hard for us—this might even be our #1 challenge in listening, knowing when to be quiet. It’s hard, because we want to share God’s truth and we’re eager to help. So we talk and talk. When this happens, and we quickly switch to preaching, the person we’re interacting with probably won’t feel understood. When we dominate a conversation with our own words, we may be giving good advice, but it’s not likely to be heard. Once again, Scripture teaches this, “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (Prov 18:13).
I sometimes wonder how we’d feel if we saw a transcript of our conversations with our fellow church members, a written record of everything that was said. When you broke down your various dialogues and interactions, what would you see? What would the word count be like? Do you often give long monologues? Do you ask questions but not really listen to the answers? Or would the record show good interaction?
We are not going to get transcripts of our “helping conversations,” but some self-reflection is necessary. Who is doing all the talking? What are we saying? Is it helping? I want to underline that by your active listening, a person is told very clearly that you’re interested, and that you care.
I have been emphasizing listening, and that in conversation we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). But we do need to speak. Good responding arises out of good listening. There are a number of aspects of responding well to someone in a conversation.
1) Leading: Even as you’re listening to someone whom you want to help, you can gently direct the conversation. You can ask questions like, “What happened next?” “What do you mean by this…” We shouldn’t be afraid of verbal detours—sometimes they lead to surprising places.
2) Reflecting: This is how you can let a person know that you’re with them, and you’re trying to understand what they think. After they have shared, you can say things like, “You must feel frustrated…” “I bet that was difficult…” “So what you’re saying is…” We shouldn’t do this so often that it’s annoying or that it seems mechanical. But a brief moment for summarizing can be a way to reflect and stimulate interaction.
3) Questioning: A person probably won’t say everything to you, but questioning can draw out useful information. The best questions are those that require at least a sentence or two to answer: “Tell me about your marriage.” “What sorts of things are making you unhappy?” Ask questions that reveal: “How are you? What is something that I can pray for you?”
4) Relating: There can be benefit in trying to show someone that you have a sense of what they’re going through. This can be delicate, for we shouldn’t pretend to know what they’ve experienced. But we can be real with them: “I struggle with this sin too. Devotions are also a challenge for me.”
5) Interpreting: We’re not psychologists, but if we’re aiming to guide and encourage someone, we can try explain what things mean. Why has this happened? What’s the underlying issue? As you listen, try to sort out the words. What is he or she really asking? Is this a diversion from a deeper issue? Are we hearing the whole story, or are we getting an edited version, with embarrassing or convicting details left out?
6) Teaching: Solomon teaches in Proverbs 15:23, “A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” To speak in “due season” means thinking about the other person, their circumstances, their struggles, their needs—and then responding. And we all have a calling to build each other up.
This is what Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” This is the God-given power of our words: a handful of well-chosen and sincere words make all the difference. They suddenly put things in perspective; they bring cheer; they make peace. So we should try to be deliberate about this kind of speaking. Think carefully about what words would be best.
It is true, we don’t always know what to say, or how to answer. Usually I only think of it a couple hours later, when the moment has long passed! But Solomon has wisdom about this in Proverbs 15:28,
The heart of the righteous studies how to answer.
We can train ourselves to speak properly by seeking God and his truth. The Scriptures give you things to say to a brother in his time of anxiety, or to a sister as she searches for God’s will. The Scriptures give you something to say as advice about parenting, or about sexual temptation, or about being a good steward of material things. When we know the Word, we will be ready to share the Word.
Better Listening, Better Helping
Helping a fellow member of Christ’s body can be demanding work. It is work that requires real sensitivity to their needs and concerns. It means that we must make genuine expressions of care toward them. It calls us to be constantly alert to what they are saying, and how they are saying it.
But through better listening, we can be equipped for better helping.
May God help us all to be people who listen in love, and then speak in truth!