Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self. (Dean Jackson)

In last week’s blog, I introduced the first of my words for 2022—the word listen—and shared both my struggles and insights on listening to God’s voice. Today I want to wade into a different kind of listening that has difficult undercurrents of its own: listening well to others.

If you Google ‘how to listen well’ you get a barrage of information about making good eye contact, asking relevant questions, repeating back what you hear and not interrupting people. All very valid, I’m sure, and probably precisely the techniques taught to counsellors across the globe. Most of these seem instinctive (except perhaps the repeating back what you hear—that has always had a slightly contrived feel about it for me).

However, listening well to others goes beyond a list of ‘how-to’s’. I think Steve Goodier hits the nail on the head with this simple statement:

“The key to good listening isn’t technique, it’s desire. Until we truly want to understand the other person, we’ll never listen well.”

Like most wise, pithy quotes that one forces me to turn a slightly critical eye on myself and ask, how well do I really listen? Do I desire to understand the people around me? My answers are a little mixed. On the positive side, I like people and am particularly interested to hear their stories—a good starting point for listening. Also, I almost always prefer to get people talking so that the spotlight isn’t on me. Maybe introverts have a slight edge when it comes to listening!

But when I dig a bit deeper, I find situations where truly listening to understand is challenging for me. Perhaps, instead of assessing my own listening skills, I should rather ask those around me how I’m doing (while maintaining eye contact and not interrupting even if I don’t like what they say) but for now, my own assessment will have to do. Here are a few of my insights as I grappled with the questions—my personal challenges to listening well.

I listen better in some relationships than in others

Surprisingly, I recognise that listening to those closest to me–Roy and my young adult daughters—is difficult for me. Maybe this is because I think I know them well enough already (so I don’t have the drive to understand them). Or perhaps because I am so deeply invested in their lives that, rather than seeking to understand, I seek to advise and direct them instead.

In relationships with a bit more distance—my sister, mom and friends—I may do better at listening, although in some of these I find myself jostling to be heard, understood and thought well of.

Listening requires me to get out the way

When ‘others over self’ gets flipped around and I push onto centre stage, listening—and understanding—break down. It happens when I tell Roy or my daughters precisely what I think they should be doing in a situation. It also happens in those ‘competitive’ relationships (anybody else have a few of those?) where I try ‘outshine’ someone. It happens when I make snap judgments about somebody without truly getting to know them. In fact, it happens any time my pride rears its head.

What I really want to learn to do is to listen deeply to somebody while simultaneously listening to what God might be wanting me to say (or not say) at that moment. Sometimes the ‘not saying’ is the most difficult of all for—slightly opinionated—me. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion,” (Proverbs 18:2) – ouch!

Listening requires me to get out of my comfort zone

Some voices scare me. Angry, disenfranchised voices, for instance. Or those with very different political or religious viewpoints. Or those in deep, deep pain—the grieving, the addicts, the terminally ill. Listening well in these situations will take me out of my comfort zone, that place that feels so safe and well…comfortable. Opening up my ears and heart to ‘the other’ in my society is frightening, yet also what Christ calls me to do. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:40). I don’t know exactly how to start moving to these ‘discomfort-zones’ but I do feel God’s invitation to be open to the opportunities and encounters when they arise.

Listening well to others turns out to be more difficult than it sounds! I love Brendon Burchard’s words:

Listening well is about giving up control. It’s releasing your perspective, holding back your impulse to speak or prove yourself. It’s living in the moment with the person you are listening to and truly feeling their world.

That kind of listening is not natural for me, not something I can do alone, which is why I find myself praying: “Lord, help me give up control and perspective and the need to prove myself. Help me listen well and truly enter into another’s world.”

What have you discovered in your own life about listening well to others?