By H. Lynn Gardner
“You’re not listening to me!”
“But, that’s not what I said!”
“Let me finish!”
The art of listening is not an exact science.
After a conversation, a man complimented his friend on his communication skills. The friend had not said more than five words; he had listened for 25 minutes.
Relationships depend upon communication. Successful communication depends on effective listening. When people listen to us, we feel respected and appreciated. We trust those who sincerely listen to us.
When we understand the nature of listening, we will want to improve our listening skills, especially listening to God.
The Psychology of Listening
It frequently happens at our house: My wife or I will say something to the other. A little later the other responds, “I heard you say something, but I don’t know what you said.” Hearing and listening are not the same.
Hearing concerns sensations; listening is about discerning meaning. Hearing has to do with the sounds received in the ear and transmitted through auditory nerves and perceived in the brain. Listening has to do with giving attention to understanding the meaning of the sounds registered by the brain.
In communication a sender expresses a message, usually in words, to a receiver or receivers. However, many things can intervene, preventing the receiver from understanding the intended message. Language, culture, and attitude can all prevent the message from being understood.
In human communication listening is the conscious effort to understand the meaning expressed by the speaker. We have listened well when we comprehend accurately what the speaker intended to communicate. Careful listening shows respect for the speaker. Children gain self-respect when their parents listen to them. Listening expresses love in marriage and promotes unity in friendships.
You don’t have to be a professional counselor or have all the answers to help suffering and grieving persons deal with their pain and grief. Many patients describe the person who helped most as a caring friend who made himself or herself available when needed and patiently listened and cried with them. Caring enough to give a listening ear can be a significant help.
We experience times when we are explaining our problem to another person and describing how we feel, only to have the person interrupt and give uninvited advice. They then tell us how we should feel and what we should do.
Bonhoeffer spoke of “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” This impatient kind of listening disrespects the other person and does not care what he or she has to say. Bonhoeffer observed, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.”
Effective listeners want to hear and understand what others say. Careful listening is a priority for them. Effective listening benefits the speaker as well as the hearer. Attentive listeners increase a speaker’s confidence and motivate him or her to be a more effective communicator.
My son-in-law, an ER physician, said if a doctor has the time to listen to a patient, more often than not, the patient will identify the diagnosis. Empathetic listening helps others find valuable confidence, self-respect, and resources within to empower their lives.
Listening demonstrates respect for, but not necessarily agreement with, the other person’s point of view. Successful salespersons can restate the customer’s objection and then give a response. In evangelistic conversations, we need to listen to persons carefully so we can state why they have not accepted Christ. Then we have gained their respect and can better answer their objections. Good listeners become models encouraging others to improve as listeners.
Improving Listening Skills
An interviewer asked teenaged prostitutes what they needed in life but did not get. Through tears, the teens responded individually, “What I needed was someone who cared enough to listen to me.” Listening to people who are confused may help them see any irrational thinking behind their feelings.
An ill-tempered father seemed to have no time for anyone but himself. His daughter wanted to tell him something that happened at school. She pleaded, “If you will listen to me, I’ll talk fast.” Poor listening harms relationships. Improving listening skills can yield great benefits.
“Selective hearing” and “willful misunderstanding” contribute to dysfunctional listening. We often hear what we want or expect to hear. The changing of behavior depends on the changing of desires. To become a more effective listener, we must decide to want and expect to understand what we hear. How many times have you repeated what you have just said to a server at a restaurant, to a person documenting information on a computer, or while booking an airline reservation? When conversing with persons using their cell phones, tablets, or laptops, it is hard to know if they are listening to you. Misunderstandings, often caused by poor listening, create conflicts in human relationships. Good listening can save time and promote productivity when working with others. Improving listening skills can contribute to our success in social, professional, and spiritual relationships.
We must listen effectively if our goal is to understand and connect with other people. To listen well, we need to follow the Golden Rule and listen to others as we would want them to listen to us.
We can always learn to improve our listening skills. The following suggestions can help:
• Face and focus on the speaker. In conversation, maintain eye contact. When distracted, we miss nonverbal cues.
• Focus on what the speaker is saying. When your thoughts drift, refocus your attention on the speaker and what is being said.
• Minimize distractions—put aside TV, radio, cell phone, tablet, computer, book, magazine, or newspaper.
• Respond with supportive comments when appropriate: nod, smile, agree. Ask follow-up questions.
• Avoid interrupting or attempting to inject your thoughts. Someone has said, “Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk.”
• Wait for the speaker to finish before giving your response. If a person expresses a complaint against you, allow him or her to give their whole argument before you defend yourself.
• After the speaker has finished, attempt to restate what he or she said to ensure that you did not misunderstand.
• Remember, we learn more from listening than from talking.
Listening to God
The most important listening is listening to God. In Scripture hearing means listening with understanding, acceptance, and obedience. Listening to God includes obeying his Word. God appealed to his people, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4). God, through his prophets, frequently rebuked and judged the Israelites for not listening to him (Jeremiah 7:13).
Wisdom comes to those who listen to God, not to those who want to hear some new thing. God warned his people not to listen to false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Jeremiah 23:16; 27:9; 29:8, 9). God said, “Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it. Blessed are those who listen to me” (Proverbs 8:32-34).
Those who don’t “try to understand” (Hebrews 5:11) who have “hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18) will not listen to God. Those who hunger for God listen to Jesus (Matthew 17:5). James wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. . . . Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:19, 22).
When Alister McGrath converted from atheism, he viewed Christianity as a superior set of ideas. Later he read Philippians, savoring every phrase, trying to identify and digest every nugget of wisdom. Paul’s statement, “I consider everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8), spoke to McGrath’s heart and changed his life. Knowing about Jesus was no longer sufficient; McGrath wanted to know him personally.
We too can listen to God with our hearts instead of merely gaining information. The Bible uses the heart to refer to the inner person, including our thoughts, feelings, and will. God wants us to listen to his life-giving truth with our whole being. As we speak to God in prayer and hear him speak to us through his Word, we come to know God’s heart and find peace and joy.
H. Lynn Gardner is a retired Bible college professor and dean living in Carl Junction, Missouri (www.lynngardner.info).