On listening

“A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows to a fool.”  Proverbs 17:10 (ESV)

Where have all the good listeners gone?  How do I become a better listener?  Listening is both a choice and a skill.  It seems that nobody is learning and nobody is choosing it these days.  This truly isn’t an emotional rant based on some recent interaction I had, it is more of an observation over several years that our culture seems to be producing generations of bad listeners.

I’ve heard it said that in a typical group setting, no one person can talk for more than 15-20 seconds before being interrupted.  If you have something valuable or insightful to say, you better say it FAST!  Even if you are able to get your words of wisdom out in such a short time frame, how do you know that the receiver even processed or understood what you were saying?

Active listening skills teach us that there is importance in acknowledging what the other person is saying - even repeating certain phrases back to them in your own words.  This helps you relate to that they are saying and retain what they are saying.  It also makes the speaker feel connected to them.  In an attempt to honestly relate to someone’s story, many people end up talking about themselves.  This is NOT productive active listening and this does not make the person you are talking to feel connected.  

Suppose I were to tell a friend that Amy and I are looking at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico for our fifth anniversary vacation in October, but we have never been to Mexico or done the all-inclusive thing so we aren’t sure about it.  That friend may have heard a few key words during my short speech like “resort, anniversary, or vacation” and thus a few stories from their own experiences were triggered in their mind.  That friend then instantly responds with, “We spent our third anniversary in luxury tree house in Nicaragua!  It is so remote that we had to be airlifted to the resort by helicopter.  The beach there was so private that nobody was sure if it had ever been discovered so the local people literally named it after us!”  That would be an amazing story to hear, for sure.  But nothing about the response this friend gave me would make me feel like they were listening to me talk about a firth anniversary in Mexico.  He HEARD me say a few things that triggered an opportunity for him to start talking about himself.  The “Me Monster” emerged.  Brian Regan, one of my favorite comedians, hilariously describes the Me Monster in this short clip from his stand up act:

We can’t force others to work on their listening skills.  If I told my Nicaragua helicoptering, private beach naming, luxury treehous-ing friend that he was a bad listener, he would likely get quite offended.  Or he may offer a story about how he knows 10 people who are worse listeners than he is.  All we can do is work on ourselves, and pray for other people.  We must make a choice this minute that we are going to work harder to listen better.  Once in the moment, we must resist the urge to speak about ourselves and instead focus on the other person.  If we engage in this way, we won’t make the other person feel as if we’ve one-upped them.  We won’t allow the Me Monster to emerge and devour their story.  

Perhaps you feel convicted by this challenge to listen better.  Good!  That means you are a person of understanding.  That means you are open to receiving “rebuke” or as mentioned in Proverbs 17:10.  If we aren’t listening to each other, we may miss important words that may challenge us to correct or improve our behavior.  If we aren’t listening to each other, this may be an indicator that we are also missing important things God is trying to tell us.  

During the worship music (before the sermon) in church today, I was a little put off that the composition of the songs was a little slower than I wanted it to be.  I felt that I needed some sort of upbeat tunes to give me some fleeting happy feelings.  I still feel the weight of grief every day.  I long to kiss Simon’s forehead again.  I wish I could smell his sweet newborn breath. And, oh, how I yearn for Amy’s heart to heal. These thoughts batter me and create a busy competition of feelings and ideas in my heart and my brain.  As I felt the slower music pulling me out of busy thoughts and into a comforting and peaceful worship, I knew God was saying “Listen.  This is what you need.  You need to slow your mind down and rely on my grace to get you through this day.”  I didn’t need some happy pop song about Jesus to brighten my mood, I just needed to be present and to listen.

For more Biblical reading on listening see James 1:19 and Proverbs 2:2 (and about 100 other verses in Proverbs!).


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