Years ago, I came to the realization: I was a terrible listener. I realized this while serving as a chaplain for a few months. This was a situation where I had to listen to person after person sharing their problems and there was nothing I could do to help…except listen. It was very hard for me! I love to teach, inspire, and challenge people to change. What is the point of just listening?! I came to realize, through this experience, that listening makes a big difference. Good listening changes people.
Unfortunately, even when I realized the importance of listening, I still was not very good at it. I started to see that – because I loved to give advice – I saw people as problems to be solved instead of individuals to care for deeply. I was jumping to conclusions and firing out solutions before I really lived in the moment with the person. Real listening lives in the moment, emotions, thoughts, and concerns of the person talking. My mentors at the time helped me to grow as a listener, and I was learning new skills to care for people and truly listen.
I remember talking with a terminal patient one day. She had pancreatic cancer and she was struggling in her faith. I had known her for a few weeks, and in my first few visits I had made a typical (for me) listening mistake. Instead of feeling her pain and the struggle of her situation, I had given her some trite advice about God’s love and implied that she should not be feeling down or sad. Thankfully, she was willing to keep meeting with me, and I went to visit her again. I asked her how she was feeling, and she told me, “Not very well. I feel nausea, and I am upset that my family hasn’t come to see me in a few days.” My mind was racing with “answers and advice,” but I wisely refused; instead, I wisely said, “I am so sorry. That must be hard. Can you tell me more about your family?” She talked and I listened. No advice was given. When our time was over, I could tell that my listening had helped her. She thanked me for the visit with a smile; someone had taken the time to understand.
Because I have been such a bad listener, I can share the mistakes that I have made. Good listeners ask lots of good questions. Questions are usually better than advice; questions open doors for people to make their own discoveries. Ever notice how many questions Jesus asked? Good listening means leaning in and showing genuine interest. Good listening includes making eye contact and not being distracted. Unfortunately, people today are more distracted than ever, especially on devices. This means we are listening to each other less than ever; people are deeply longing to be listened to and understood. If followers of Christ can be good listeners, hearts will open to hear about God’s truth, hope, and love. Listening is one of the best – and easiest – ways to show God’s love.
While I was in this season of growth, I was also learning to listen more to my wife. One day, she was talking to me about a problem at work. In the past, I had always tried to give her advice, take the other person’s side, or play devil’s advocate – all in an effort to help her. Of course, these measures never really helped her, and they often led to us getting into a fight. This day I decided to try out my new listening skills on my wife. She shared her problem. I asked how the situation made her feel. She answered. I asked why she thought the other person was acting the way she was. My wife answered and shared her thoughts on the situation. I asked what she thought she would do next. She answered and gave her plan. I asked if she thought her plan would fix the situation. She gave her thoughts. Then there was silence for a minute. This was rare; usually she wanted to say more and more. I said to her, “How do you feel right now?” She answered, “I feel good…really good.” I said, “I have been learning some new listening techniques, and I was trying them on you.” She replied, “You should keep doing that!”
I have come a long way as a listener, and I still have a lot of growing to do. Listening makes a difference. Listening opens up hearts. I wanted to share with you some of the ways I have learned to listen, and I truly hope they will help. We can all use more people who truly listen.
If you made it to the end…thanks for listening. 🙂