The Labor of Listening

May 19, 2017 No Comments »
The Labor of Listening

By Sylvia Schroeder

“Hello, is anyone home?” I want to ask my husband while he sits in silence. His thumbs move on the screen of his phone making a click-click during our conversation. He concentrates with such fervor, his brows almost touch.

“Hello, is anyone home?”

I just hate it when I know that someone is not listening to what I’m saying. When I ask a question and only silence answers, I feel less important than a rectangular inanimate object.

Full engagement is difficult to give and rare to receive in today’s context of ever-present distractions. However, it has always required discipline.

Be Still

Hearing by definition is the act of identifying sound by ear, while listening engages the mind. One is passive, the other active. Hearing happens. Listening takes conscious effort. Hearing is an ability, but listening is a skill. When distractions shortchange the process, it is easy to arrive at distorted conclusions. Disciplining the mind to be still and really listen takes work.

Sometimes in church I find that trying to reel in my thoughts is like trying to lasso fireflies. My mind takes vacation while my lips sing praises. I forget who I am praying to, whose book I’m reading, or even who the sermon highlights.

Scripture is not silent about the subject. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

The progression from listen to speak to anger typifies a discussion gone wrong. When I respond without full understanding, the misunderstanding escalates quickly into anger. Knowing how to listen is every bit as important as knowing what to say, and perhaps even harder.

The wisest man who ever lived understood the power of holding back words and of speaking them at the right time and in the right way. Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs: “Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions” (18:2), and “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (v. 13).

Hold that Tongue

If we are preoccupied with our own thoughts, another’s words can’t penetrate. Because we don’t process what we hear as quickly as we hear it, thinking of a response while someone is still talking can kill our understanding.

When we are listened to, we feel valued. If allowed to express themselves freely, people often hear the truth in themselves. While some people seem to have a listening gene and others a talking one, it is a skill that can be learned and improved.

• Listening requires restraint. Stop talking. A friend of mine uses an acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking? It’s next to impossible to listen and talk at the same time. So be intentional about listening. Show you are listening: lean forward, smile, nod. Use short comments like “uh-huh,” “oh my,” or “mmhmm.”

• Listening requires humility. It’s not about me. In order to listen effectively, I need to give up self so someone else has the stage, place myself in a less dominant posture, and receive rather than deliver. So I look at the speaker, I use eye contact, balanced to a comfortable amount, and I strive to empathize.

• Listening requires patience. True listening takes time. It creates connection and shows care. Learn to be comfortable with silence. Don’t interrupt. Resist imposing solutions.

• Listening requires concentration. Be attentive. Remove removable distractions (such as technology). Ask clarifying questions. Check for accurate understanding. Reiterate what you think you heard.

The Listening Ear of God

God repeatedly calls his people to attention throughout Scripture. Before he gave what Jesus later referred to as the most important commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” God’s words first commanded attention with, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

God similarly introduced the Ten Commandments through Moses with these words, “Hear, Israel” (5:1). He bid attentiveness so that the import of the message following wouldn’t be lost.

I wonder, what are God’s thoughts about my listening skills?

When we are still before him with conscious resolve that he wants us to hear him, we train our minds and hearts to be engaged. Intentional communication with God, reading his Word, talking to him, and growing in understanding of who he is all requires surrender. As our hearts change, communication becomes Christ-centered rather than me-centered. Interaction with people causes us to become others-focused and not self-focused.

When our four children were little, the noise in the back of the car reached unchartered decibels.

“She pinched me!”

“She won’t look at me.”

“Why are you looking at me?”

My husband and I heard it all, most of it like a lion’s roar that didn’t stop. We grew accustomed to much of the hubbub, but some words like, “I gotta go potty,” got immediate attention. Those four words stood out in even the loudest racket.

In the same way, if a mechanical sound that didn’t belong came from under the hood of our car, my husband heard it immediately, in spite of chaos.

“Shhhhhh, everyone be quiet,” he’d say and turn his ear to listen intently.

We hear what we listen for.

The Bible offers guidance for what we say, how we speak, and, yes, even how much. Learning control is a discipline that requires God’s help. Many of the principles that apply to how we listen to God also apply to how well we listen to others.

What can we do to develop the spiritual discipline of listening?

• Ask for help from the God who hears. Bring a humble heart willing to learn and be taught. Pray for wisdom to know how to be quiet and pray for a sensitive heart to others.

• Be diligent in pouring his words into your soul. Scripture is God’s purest form of speaking to us. As we broaden and dig into who he is, we become better listeners to his Spirit.

• Learn to be still before the Lord. Practice patient waiting.

Hear to Follow

God hears us. He listens.

The psalms are poignant with prayers pleading God’s listening ear. Psalm 40:1 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” What a precious picture of an Almighty God who hears and turns toward us when we cry to him.

We long for this. We want him to hear, to know, to understand. When we believe he hears, our trust in him grows. Faith increases as we connect and communicate with God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his book Life Together, “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to us by him who is himself the great listener and whose work we should share.”

As Christ followers we should be effective listeners because by doing so we minister to the hearer. Just as we receive God’s love, care, and compassion through his listening ear, as we listen, we grant those same gifts to others.

Listening takes effort, but the privilege is well worth its labor.

Sylvia Schroeder is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Missouri.

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