It’s probably been a while since you were young, but you might recall a nursery rhyme from years ago.
It’s a poem about the merits of measuring our words:
A wise old owl sat in an oak;
The more he saw, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
This little poem points out the close connection between being wise and limiting what we say: “The less he spoke, the more he heard.” It picks up on something that God himself has revealed, for Proverbs 10:19 says,
In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.
Choosing to speak less certainly allows us to hear more. Yet it seems that listening is in short supply these days. People aren’t used to being listened to, because everyone is busy and they don’t have the time to really tune in. Or everyone is eager to air their opinions: we want to be heard, and we want others to see and notice us. The result is that we don’t always listen to what’s going on around us, and we miss out on something essential.
In this post and the next, we’ll see that listening is fundamental to the activity of helping a fellow member in the church. So how can we do it better, so that listening becomes a tool that we can use to bless and support other people?
The Goal of Listening
As followers of Christ, we want what is for the spiritual good of other people. In particular, we want our fellow congregational members to grow in faith and to enjoy life in the Lord’s service. And while all of us have a measure of the joys and blessings of belonging to Christ, for some of our brothers and sisters, life is undoubtedly very difficult. This might be because of physical illness, broken relationships, anxiety and fear, depression, or circumstances that are disturbed in some other way.
It can be hard to help people for a whole variety of reasons. First, some of the problems that people face are self-inflicted, but a person may not see this—and it is difficult to help them if they don’t.
Second, most behaviour has been learned over a long period of time, which means that it can also take much time to unravel this, to unlearn bad habits and to break from sinful patterns.
Third, the challenge of helping someone can be that a person is very reluctant to come for help. They don’t want to talk, perhaps because of embarrassment and shame, or a lack of trust, or because a person doesn’t know how to express what is going on.
And fourth, we ourselves often don’t know how best to assist someone, limited as we are in insight and resources.
Setting the Stage
In our aim to lovingly care for each other, we should be aware of these barriers and then try to help a person be at ease. It is self-evident that when a person feels a level of comfort with someone, they will be more open to receiving encouragement and guidance, making a confession of sin, even to being admonished. This comfortable atmosphere can be brought about especially through developing a positive relationship with a person—such a relationship is really at the heart of helping them.
We probably all understand this intuitively, that in order to properly assist someone it’s essential to develop a good relationship.
Upbuilding conversation flows out of a living connection between two people.
But how can we develop this? As you might expect, studies have been done to understand how relationships can be most effective, even in secular settings like hospitals and schools and workplaces. And it has been shown that relationships grow when the care-giver shows warmth, genuineness, and empathy.
1) Warmth: How to define the warmth between one person and another? Relational warmth implies an attitude of caring and respecting. It’s the evidence of having a sincere concern for someone: how you look at a person, how you respond to them, and how you engage with them. And this warmth isn’t easily cooled by the person’s actions or attitudes, whatever they are.
Think of how Jesus showed this when He met the woman at the well in John 4. Her morals may have been shamefully low, and He certainly didn’t condone her sinful behaviour. Yet in his conversation with her, it was clear that Jesus respected her and treated her as a person of dignity—He was warm towards her.
2) Genuineness: Being genuine means that when we’re helping someone, we should always strive to be open and sincere. We should simply be ourselves, not thinking or feeling one thing and saying something different because of our desire for their approval or our fear of a bad reaction. We should avoid phoniness or anything that says we’re playing a superior role. Speak honestly, from the heart, as an equal before God.
3) Empathy: This is the ability to share in the feelings of another person. It means being focused on what the person thinks, trying to enter in to how they’re feeling. If you walked in his shoes for a while, how soon would his hurts, conflicts, or struggles come to the foreground?
For example, what’s it like to live under the black cloud of depression? Or to live with someone who is suffering from this? Or try to imagine how this financial difficulty puts a strain on family life.
If we’ve never experienced this kind of thing, we’re going to have to work to be empathetic. We must develop sensitivity to the fact that life can be hard for people.
You understand that none of these things can be put on like a hat. You don’t just become warm and sincere overnight. But to be effective in building this kind of positive and constructive relationship, the following points are integral. We should:
· Be interested in people – It should be clear that you want to get to know them, even to know about the difficult parts of their life.
· Show evidence of the fruit of the Spirit – A person should be blessed by being near you, because you show love and kindness, you’re patient and gentle and good.
· Be willing to reveal things about yourself – You want to help someone in their struggles, but that doesn’t mean you have to put on a front of invincibility and perfection. Find a way to show that you’re a human too.
· Be discrete and trustworthy – They should know that sharing with you is safe.
If you have a positive relationship with a person, the stage is set to do some serious listening. There are three aspects of good listening: attending to a person, hearing them, and then responding to them.
Attending to a person means that you are present with them, and you are willing to give them your undivided attention. This is not necessarily a quantity of time, that you must sit with them for two hours. It could be that long, or only fifteen minutes—yet in those minutes you want to convey the real sense that you’re focused completely on them. This is the kind of atmosphere where people know they are being listened to with love and seriousness. And it is then that they’ll be prepared to speak.
So what are a few things we can do when we’re attending to a person?
1) Eye contact: If you are across from each other, look at the person’s face, eye to eye. Don’t be creepy about it—it’s not a staring contest, but it is a simply way to convey our concern and full attention.
2) Posture: We use our ears to listen, but our whole body is involved. Interacting with someone, we should be relaxed, rather than tense. People can pick up cues from how we’re folding our arms, or tilting our head, or planting our feet. Think about posture.
3) Gestures: When listening, some people are always nodding their heads; others are constantly adjusting their glasses; still others keep one eye on their phone. We should consider whether our gestures are distracting or if they express a listening spirit.
A key thing in attending to someone is time. Listening to someone’s story always takes more time than delivering a monologue. Even so, it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Even twenty minutes spent carefully listening and responding can be fruitful. You know, of course, that when you’re really busy with all sorts of other things, twenty minutes of listening feels like an eternity. In that scenario, we’ll be more interested in getting the answer we’re hoping for than actually listening.
So we should know this about our state of mind when we’re talking with someone. Recognize that things like fatigue, our undercurrent of impatience, or our preoccupation with the many commitments in our diary can prevent us from giving someone our careful attention. And because we are not fully focused on them, we likely will not be able to help them.
In this regard, the wisdom of God’s Word from James 1:19 is vital to consider:
Let everyone be quick to hear and slow to speak.
The priority that we should give to listening is clear.
In the next post, we’ll look at two more important aspects of listening: hearing and responding.