By Stephen D. Boyd, PhD
One of the most important Christlike skills we can develop in our daily lives is to be a good listener. I find that people gravitate to those who are willing to listen. Jesus often began his teaching with “Let those with ears use them and listen!” (Matthew 11:15, New Century Version). When people come to us with a problem or at a difficult time in their lives, they don’t necessarily want us to give a solution; they just want someone to listen.
Listening takes work because it is an action, though often people perceive talking to be active and listening to be passive. If we are really paying attention, our listening requires an active mind and increased energy to connect with and understand the message of the person talking.
The story behind some of the seascapes by J. M. W. Turner illustrates active listening. Author Charles Kingsley once asked Turner how he was able to paint a storm at sea so vividly. Turner replied, “I wished to paint a storm at sea. So I went to the coast of Holland and engaged a fisherman to take me out to his boat and asked him to bind me to its mast. Then he drove the boat out into the teeth of the storm. The storm was so furious that I longed to be down in the bottom of the boat and allow it to blow over me. But I could not; I was bound to the mast. Not only did I see the storm and feel it, but it blew itself into me till I became part of the storm. And then I came back and painted the picture.”
Listening actively makes us become a part of the same storm as the one speaking, and we cannot help but better understand how the storm appears to that person. Here are some actions that help us listen more effectively:
Ask open questions.
To get into the other person’s situation, ask, “What makes you feel that way?” An open question allows the other person to choose a direction and forces you to go where the speaker wants to take you. Other questions that probe actively are, “What other factors are involved?” or “What else might influence the way you handle this problem?” Closed questions tend to make you become the talker because the answer is either “yes” or “no” or a brief statement. When you only obtain single-word answers, you end up talking more than the person with the problem and you fail to gain understanding.
This is especially important if action needs to be taken. Put yourself in a situation where you have to prove you were listening by paraphrasing. When you push yourself to paraphrase occasionally while listening, you will be more actively involved. This opportunity typically occurs when you are receiving instructions on how to do something or how to go somewhere. Before leaving a conversation, say, “Let me make sure I understand you correctly. What I’ve been hearing is . . .” Paraphrasing verifies the accuracy of your listening and makes sure the other person’s perspective is clear to you.
Understand the other person’s point before you give advice.
When a person comes to us with a problem, our first response may be to try to give advice or a solution, but sometimes all the person wants is someone to understand. If we go into an interaction with the mental goal of listening first and advising second, we are more likely to understand before offering suggestions. As we listen to understand, the one talking often realizes on his or her own the solutions to the problem. When we don’t feel the pressure of giving advice immediately, we become more attuned to what the person is saying. Understanding often comes from asking questions and paraphrasing.
Take notes as you listen.
Don’t take notes on everything, but jot down key ideas. Simply write periodic summary statements of what has been said. It motivates us to stay connected with the speaker because we know that at a given time we will write down a summary statement. This self-discipline causes us to get into the heart of the other person’s words. I remember talking to a lawyer at a deposition, where every word was transcribed for later reference. I noticed that even though there was a recorder, the lawyer had a legal pad full of summary statements. I asked why he kept careful summary notes when every word said would be his for later perusal. He responded that this method kept him attached to the talker and allowed him to ask more appropriate and penetrating questions. Take a moment after meeting with a person or having a phone conversation to put those notes in a summary; then you are ready for the next conversation with that person. Even if you don’t keep the notes, seeing the ideas will help you remember them.
Keep the speaker talking.
For an active listening boost, ask questions that prompt the speaker to tell more, and you will gain useful information. The active part of making sure the speaker talks as much as possible is asking questions that encourage the speaker to continue, such as, “How do you feel about . . . ?” or “How is that significant?” James emphasized, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19.)
Commit yourself completely to listening to the other person.
Often we are distracted by phone calls, people walking down the hall, things going on outside the window, and our own problems while we are trying to listen. Close the door to your office or study, stop incoming phone calls, put your paperwork to the side, leave your computer, and concentrate on the person talking to you. This is a real challenge and requires a conscious commitment.
To improve your listening self-discipline, determine that before the person leaves, you will have in your mind an overview of what the person said and your reaction to it. Let the person know by your actions that active listening is the only priority you have. I know a person who has a listening chair. When he is in that chair, he commits himself wholly to listening; nothing else matters but giving complete concentration to the person talking to him.
Like Turner who could only paint the storm at sea once he had been at sea in a storm, so it is only when we are active that we can actively listen. Not only did Turner feel the storm inside of himself, but those who view his seascapes can tell that he did. Active listening may take the form of asking open questions, paraphrasing, withholding advice, taking notes, ridding our minds of distractions, and keeping the other person talking. However we go about actively listening, we put ourselves in the teeth of the talker’s storm and gain two advantages—others perceive us to be good listeners, and our own concentration and understanding will greatly improve.
As Henry David Thoreau said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.”
Stephen D. Boyd, PhD taught listening at Northern Kentucky University and is the pulpit minister of the Central Church of Christ, Cincinnati, Ohio.