“We argue and debate by trying to convince everyone why I am right and my opponent is wrong. It puts all of the focus on me, my opinion, why my way is better. That isn’t how you change people’s opinions… normally we like to just dismiss a person as crazy, or sick, but few people ask the question why they think and act as they do. Sometimes if you ask the question you might learn something, and for the person just the belief that someone cares about them and what they believe can change their whole philosophy”
Jeffrey Ruley from the documentary A Bit of Optimism
By now we’ve all heard enough about the art of listening to know how important this concept is in maintaining successful and effective relationships. This art must be practiced by husbands and wives, parents and children, and pastors and their congregations: in short, anywhere communication is crucial. Following are a few forms of listening for consideration.
Attentive listening – The basics, Listening 101. The difficult task of simply paying attention to the speaker. This includes maintaining eye contact and nodding your head, perhaps occasionally asking a question to further the conversation. In the age of constant buzz from our electronic devices, this basic skill has become more challenging. It is commonplace to see a couple sitting in a restaurant, eating their meal, totally absorbed in their phones. When they do speak, they find it difficult to maintain attention and quickly go back to their media. The cell phone can be a useful tool or a jealous god. Listening 101 needs to address the place of devices within our communication. We must recognize the potential barrier they present to effectively maintaining eye contact and giving the speaker our full attention, as well as the very real possibility of sabotaging true and effective communication.
The challenge: Put the phone down. Look into his or her eyes. Just listen.
Reflective listening – Listening to understand and to make the speaker feel heard. Giving the speaker a voice, allowing them to vent and to share their hearts without judgement. This brings into focus an art form called restatement, in which the listener occasionally re-states whatever he is being told. So what you’re telling me is … or Oh yes, I hear you, that makes sense… or If I understood you correctly… Repeating what they said tells them you were listening, and asking follow-up questions makes them feel you were actually interested in what they have to say. Reflective listening allows for two-way communication but the onus is still on the one you are listening to. Their story remains their story; not, their story becomes your story and you end up listening only to respond. An example of this unhelpful story transition is Oh that’s really interesting but here’s what happened to me…. It tells the person that you were not really listening.
The challenge: nod your head, give verbal acknowledgment, and practice restatement.
Extreme listening – This type of listening is probably only practiced by experienced listeners. An example of this is given by author Simon Sinek, who tells the story of a black Muslim woman by the name of Deeyah Khan who sat down with white supremacists to simply listen to their story and hear their perspective. As the supremacists felt her genuine interest and love, many of them ended up leaving their racist organization. Husbands can practice this in a difficult relationship with their wives. Wives with husbands. Parents with children. Another term for this type of listening could be called sacrificial listening. It means laying down heavily weighted opinions, the type which serious marriage conflicts are made of. It means sitting with your spouse and truly hearing them out, even if they are wrong, even if you are right, even if it makes no sense. Extreme listening does not endorse what someone is doing but it does validate their lived experience. This kind of listening builds bridges and has the potential to lead to transformational change.
The challenge: Sit with the difficult family member and simply hear them out. No opinion, no judgment, no fight. Just listen.
Therapeutic Response – When attentive, reflective, and extreme or sacrificial listening takes place, it opens the door for something I call therapeutic response. This is a response based on truly understanding a person’s heart, understanding only gained through effective listening. This is a response that tends towards healing and redemption, even when that response is a judgment on sin or an uncomfortable truth. If people—counselors, parents, pastors, friends—only listened and never responded, we would often not find answers to our questions, direction for our conundrums, or solutions for our problems.
Some people say all we really need to do is listen. This is entirely dependent on the phase of the relationship. True, effective communication means give and take, back and forth: an exchange of ideas, opinions, and convictions. If these art forms of listening are learned and practiced, the one seeking counsel finds it much easier to accept the message, especially if it is a hard one.
This brings us to another concept. It has been said that in all forms of listening there must be something called reciprocity. That is, for relationships to be successful, there must be a return of the favor. One can give themselves to listening but eventually, the other person, the giver so to speak, must become the receiver, or the listener, as well. The ratio for this reciprocity is approximately 1:1, although it can differ with personalities. Some need more space for speaking, some for listening. For some, listening comes easier than speaking; for others, perhaps the majority, speaking comes easier.
The challenge: bringing a thoughtful response that includes both kindness and truth.
Humans are fascinating creatures and everyone has a story and is on a journey. We all appreciate being authentically heard and understood. In the end, practicing the art of listening is really about kindness, compassion, and building bridges between hearts.