When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot-on that you felt really understood?
(Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening [Great Britain: Vintage, 2021],1.)
The above paragraph comes from a book I am working through. Murphy’s concern is that most of modern society has lost the practice of really listening and how this loss is the root of much that is wrong in society today. I was immediately drawn to the book as it echoed much of what I teach in my classes on spiritual friendship and spiritual mentoring.
She also observes what I have long observed, that much of our teaching on communication focuses on how we talk, not on how we listen.
Listening is the neglected stepchild of communication research, pushed aside by investigations into effective elocution, rhetoric, argumentation, persuasion, and propaganda. Browse through the three volume, 2,048-page International Encyclopaedia of Interpersonal Communication and you’ll find only one entry specific to listening. (Murphy, 37)
In prizing speaking over listening, we ignore the clues that creation gives us. We have two ears but only one mouth. Or perhaps something more scientific, we have eyelids so we can close our eyes, but we can’t close our ears, suggesting listening is vital to our survival (Murphy, 34).
The priority of listening over speaking is also found in the Scriptures, for example in the book of James.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry . . . (James 1:19 NIV)
Commenting on this verse, Douglas Moo writes:
The admonition to display wisdom by listening much and talking little is found quite often (in Jewish/Old Testament writings).
(Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James [Grand Rapids, IL: Eerdmans, 2000], 82.)
Many of us, including myself, fail the James 1:19 test of wisdom. I remember I was once having dinner with son Andrew, a precious evening that rarely happens because we live in different parts of the globe. He called me out for checking on my handphone frequently, and therefore not being fully present. This was such a precious time and I wasn’t giving him the listening he deserved. I am not sure how far I have progressed since then.
The need to be good listeners has also direct implications for our personal growth and spiritual formation. Another book I am working though is Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2010). He writes:
Remembering, therefore, is not simply a function of the mind. It is an embodied expression of our lives as we recall the concrete, earthbound actions of God and people. It is an invitation to grace and adventure that involves all God’s people. It is not just the past in our heads. It is the present in our doing.
That is why I believe that faithfully telling and listening to our stories is one of the single most important things we can do as followers of Jesus. Storytelling inevitably engages our memories — both the speakers’ and the hearers’ — and so opens the door to a different future. (Thompson, 81)
Thompson also says:
As you construct your narrative, you’re likely to discover that your implicit and explicit memories are being woven together in a way that makes more sense, especially as you experience someone else listening to you in an empathetic manner. (Thompson, 79)
Thompson is advocating the importance of remembering and narrating one’s personal story but this is an exercise that is only meaningful if someone is listening empathetically to your telling.
Take a look at how we do discipling in our churches — how much of it is speaking, e.g. preaching, teaching, training, giving words from the Lord, etc., and how much of it is listening? And if listening is as important as speaking, how can we incorporate more listening into our discipling practices? Should we be surprised that more and more of our people are seeking out spiritual directors and life coaches?
I need to say that listening is hard work. I often leave counselling and mentoring sessions, exhausted. Which is why I often say that listening is a gift of love. When I choose to listen to someone, it means I value you and that is why I am giving you the gift of listening. Let me close with another quote from Murphy:
Listening is something you do or don’t do every day. While you might take listening for granted, how well you listen, to whom, and under what circumstances determines your life’s course — for good or ill. (4)
And I would add that includes listening to God.
Those who have ears, let them hear.