Are you a good listener? I am not. I interrupt people before they finish their sentences. And after hearing one or two sentences I assume I know the rest of what a person wants to say. I then stop listening and am already marshalling my responses. (Yes, I am an ENTJ.) No, I am not a good listener but I have learnt to do better. I want to work at being a good listener for at least two reasons — my commitment to the worth of the individual; and the dearth of listening in today’s world.
Paul J. Wadell reminds us of a fundamental need in all of us:
… each of us needs someone with whom we can be completely open, someone with whom we can relax our heart. We need someone we trust and feel comfortable enough with to share the secrets, dreams, and hopes of our hearts, including matters of the soul. We need … a confidant who and respects us so completely that we do not fear revealing to him or to her the deepest parts of who we are, even those aspects of our lives of which we might be embarrassed or ashamed: our failures and fears, struggles and ongoing temptations, even our sinfulness. We need someone with whom we are able to speak our soul, confident that they will not betray our trust. (Becoming Friends, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002, 114)
When we read Waddell, our hearts cry amen. To experience healing and growth, we all need people who value us enough to listen to our lives. Yet so much of life today is lived anonymously. Many of us are lonely, crying out for someone who will love us enough to listen to our souls.
In his book, Joyful Exiles, James M. Houston bemoans the loss of the personal in modern life.
I have long thought that failure to sustain the personal is the worst feature of modern life. Indeed, is this not at the heart of the cultural crisis of our times? All efforts to create community fail if we try to engender community as self-centred individuals. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 105)
I have the privilege of knowing Dr Houston personally and know that he has sought to model a different approach to people, and to listening.
Listening to literally thousands of students over sixty years of mentoring, I have been enriched by their shared experiences of personal life. They have taught me that we should welcome those knocks at the office door not as interruptions, but as fresh opportunities to learn more from human life and its diverse relationships and experiences. We live much more than we experience within our own egos. confidantes with compassionate seriousness. We can never give enough understanding, recognition, kindness, empathy and encouragement to others. Uniqueness is a great gift of God … (Houston, Joyful Exiles, 106-107)
If we truly believe in the worth of the individual, we need to be committed to the discipline of listening. When we take the time and effort to listen to someone, we communicate to them their value and worth and by doing so help encourage them to grow to be all the Lord had in mind when He created him or her. It would appear that listening is as essential to human life as food and water.
Unfortunately good listening is in short supply. As W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley remind us:
… poor listening is an epidemic in western culture. People do not take the time to attend to the meanings behind other people’s words. Even in supervision and management, mentors often rush to give an answer, offer advice, or tell their story without tuning in to their proteges’ real concern or point or view. This inattentiveness communicates that what the protege has to say is not worthwhile or important. (The Elements of Mentoring, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 46)
And if what I have to say is not important then am I important?
Do a quick survey of your world. At work, is there anyone who takes the time to listen to you? What is the quality of the communication at home? Do people communicate at all? And if they do are they basically telling each other things or is there careful listening as well? How is the situation at church? I understand the need for ministry and the need to learn biblical content, but is there anywhere where you are allowed to share your life, anywhere where people know you and celebrate you as an individual?
The modern tendency to value speaking over listening can be seen by the large number of titles in any book store on “how to get your message across.” How many books are there on how to listen? The few books on that theme will probably be tucked away in the counselling section implying that good listening is to be seen as something remedial rather than something that is part of the very fabric of life.
We badly need to recover listening in our lives and our ministries. And hence my own commitment to try to be a better listener. After all the bible tells us to be quick to listen and to be slow to speak (James 1:19). This applies to all of us whatever our personality type!
Let me close with this reading from Eugene Peterson:
… listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambiance of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to them. The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?” (Living the Message, London, UK: HarperCollins, 1996, 202-203)