Five Ways to Listen Well

July 5, 2016

The word listen contain the same letters as the word ‘silent.’ ~ Alfred Brendel

I am a good listener. This is who I am and not just an narcissistic opinion but one that is confirmed by my closest friends. It may not be obvious to my readers, because through my words you only hear my voice, yet each of my pieces are sustained by the invisible work of listening. I believe everything of value must be borne out of the sacred craft of listening for it to be rich and transformative: writing, justice, preaching, teaching, problem solving, creativity, parenting, and love.

But like all natural gifts, I was not aware of my ability to listen well until I confronted the dearth of quality listening in others. In my writing niche of faith and culture, I have diagnosed almost all the ills of toxic religiosity as rooted in a severe deficit in Christians’ ability to listen to others. In How I Kissed Evangelism Goodbye, I say our ability to listen is compromised by the evangelistic agenda. The solution is to reclaim the art of listening deep and listening well. My life of listening has evolved, and over the years, I have gained some maturing reflections. I offer these five suggestions in the hopes that we may grow together as listeners:

Be Quiet. The first step to listen is to hush so the other can speak. This is the most common sense piece of advice and yet the most counterintuitive and difficult to accomplish. Don’t be deceived into thinking being quiet is to remain passive. Not all quiet people are good listeners. Becoming still in order to listen well is rigorous. It requires one to declutter the noise from our own heads. This is the list of to-do’s that constantly scrolls in our minds, it is the anxieties that bear constant weight on our hearts, and it is the innate desire to image craft as we formulate our responses.  All of this stands formidably in the way of clearing a path to receive someone’s story. To make room for beautiful things we have to first declutter. In the place of all the thoughts consuming our minds, we institute a posture of genuine interest.

Hear the Story Behind the Words. As we listen, lean in beyond the words your friend is speaking. We are dynamic people, and our words are only a slice of who we are. An important piece, an external representation of our internal being, but it is still only a partial reflection. The truth is, most of us aren’t trained communicators, and our words bumble out awkwardly. But God forbid we only listen to rhetorical speakers. No, there are rich stories to be mined in ordinary folks, those with limited vocabulary, the ones who shyly second guess their own words. Listen to make people whole, use their two dimensional words to project the fuller humanity behind them. If they say they are sad, understand that they have a character that feels, that empathizes. If they carry on and on about a subject, enjoy their passion and see that their enthusiasm make up an integral part of their personality.

To make room for beautiful things we have to first declutter.

Ask Good Questions. Important! Rapid fire questions are not good questions. I had a friend who I could tell wanted to get to know me more and was curious about me, but his questions were incessant and he asked at me, not about me. Another bad example is the way obnoxious reporters shove their microphones into people’s faces in order to extract a story. The purpose of asking questions in a conversation is not to satisfy our own curiosity, but to make space for the other to expand their story. Clarifying questions are good in a job interview, but they don’t make good questions for relationship building. Sometimes listening comes across as consuming, as if your conversation partner is providing you entertainment. Good listening is giving, never taking. Again, the goal of a good question is not for our own benefit, but to give the other the opportunity to share more of themselves with us.

Don’t Come to a Conclusion. Humans have a social and psychological need to categorize people in in/out groups, labeling people according to certain stereotypical boxes. In listening, we will be drawn to placing labels on each other as we learn information that allows us to sort the other person out. A good listener will resist this temptation. We have a deep desire to be known, but we are also people who don’t remain static but evolve with the passing of time. Don’t listen to come to a conclusion about the other–listen in order to keep listening. Listen to be shaped by the arc of this person’s story as they move through life.

Tell Your Own Story. I used to believe that in order to be a good listener, I had to never talk about myself and only listen to the other person. Little did I know that vulnerability begets vulnerability. How do I earn the right to hear the sacred stories of the other unless I tenderly offer up my own? Remember we don’t listen to consume, we listen to build relationship, and every relationship has to be reciprocal. There is a back and forth in every good conversation. The wisdom lies in discerning when it’s time to be quiet (step 1) and when it is time for you to be listened to.

And if you have put in the effort to hone your craft of listening well, I have a feeling when you speak, you will be listened to.