Let me begin by saying, listening is not my forte. As a teenager, I was so eager to say something right, or clever, or funny that I spent most conversations rehearsing what I was going to say next, completely missing what else that was being said as I mentally tried out different ways of wording what I was going to contribute next.
Then as a freshman in college, I took a class in interpersonal communication where my professor challenged us to try actively and purposefully listening. No daydreaming, no jumping ahead to thinking about what our reply would be, no checking phones or looking for someone else to talk to. To be honest, I had never realized what a bad listener I was until I made an attempt to be better. And at times it felt almost impossible. I would catch myself planning responses before I realized what I was doing. Or worse, I realized how many times I actually cut people off because I just had to say my piece while it was fresh in my mind. It was embarrassing and humbling to watch my own self-absorption play out in conversations and realize how annoying I must have been to talk to.
I’ve gotten much better at listening in the past few years, which has more to say about how truly terrible I was then than it says about how well I listen now. But I continue to fight the almost instinctual habit of checking out when people are talking to me. And I fight it because I really believe that you are worth listening to, and not just hearing.
I think far too often we approach a conversation with a mindset that doesn’t encourage genuine listening. It’s a little like the way people think when they are on social media. We don’t go on facebook to challenge our thinking about a controversial or nuanced issue. We don’t go on twitter to get to know someone on a deeper level or attempt to understand their challenges. We use these sites to gather interesting facts and gossip, to spout our opinions, to make ourselves look good, to be entertained, or to get validation from people liking us. And admittedly, that’s what social media is for.
But how does that kind of thinking affect our person-to-person conversations? When we’re only in a conversation to be entertained or to put forward our own opinions without attempting to understand another point of view, we are never going to experience any of the rewards of understanding another person.
Listening, like paying attention, is an act of will. It takes intentionality and practice. As P.M. Forni writes in Choosing Civility, in order to be a good listener, you need to make listening your primary goal in an interaction. Even reminding yourself from time to time, “right now I will just listen.”
Intentional listening means:
- removing distractions.
- putting your to-do list out of your mind for a little while.
- only giving your opinion when asked.
- asking questions to clarify a word or concept.
- respecting the other person’s privacy (and not asking questions simply out of curiosity).
- showing signs that you understand or are trying to understand their point of view.
Sometimes people will say things that we don’t agree with. Listening doesn’t mean that we agree or appear to agree with everything that other people say. But it does mean that we should show people that we recognize and understand their point of view, even as we disagree with them. Disagreeing respectfully is one of the finest displays of civility, and it’s impossible if we don’t know how to listen without a pre-existing agenda. To listen is to assume that there is always something for you to learn in every interaction- even if that is just how to be a better listener.
Listening without agenda is a form of self-denial that doesn’t come naturally. It hurts a bit to put yourself second in a conversation. To accept the possibility that you may never get the chance to say what you are so eager to say. To keep quiet when everything in you is screaming I just have to tell them what I think about this!!
So why bother? If it’s so unnatural to listen, why don’t we just give up? For me, it always comes back to Christ, who is in everything the ultimate example. Christ, who had all the glory of the ages and could have exercised His genuine right to come to Earth in splendor- Who easily could have made every single person He came in contact with fall to the ground in awe and terror- and instead He came in humility. He allowed Himself to become like one of us, able to be overlooked or ignored. Someone who, if you passed him on the street, wouldn’t warrant a second glance.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phillipians 2:5-8)
Treating others kindly always starts with an act of humility, with a decision to think of ourselves more realistically in relation to our God and each other. It’s so easy to think that our opinions, our emotions, and our stories are more significant than what others have to share, but, well, they aren’t.
I, for one, need to remember that more often.