The art of listening

It’s something I’ve told my children since before they could fully understand what it meant:

God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.  (So you should listen twice as much as you speak…?)

I’d do well to follow the same advice; wouldn’t most of us?

Listening, active listening, is a dying art.

Today’s culture lends itself to attention deficit – distractions are as close as the palm of our hand.  When you’re texting someone and with someone else, it’s impossible to be fully present.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, [your favorite social sharing site] are demanding little monsters with insatiable appetites.  For them to be silent apps, they sure make a lot of noise.

In some ways, it’s like we’ve agreed to sanction rudeness.

It’s a scene I’ve seen far too many times: a family with children or a pack of teens out to dinner, silent, heads down, all with phones in hand.  It breaks my heart every time.

Poor listening isn’t only tethered to cell misuse.  Can you think of a time when you’ve been in conversation with someone and before you finish your sentence she’s already sharing her version of a similar story?  Before you’ve had time to complete your thought, she’s beginning her response.

I’m hardly pointing fingers, friends – I’ve been Chief of Transgressors when it comes to listening with half an ear!  If I’m stepping on toes, good!  That means there will be others to share my pain.

I’ve come to the conclusion that active listening is a skill worthy of developing, if for no other reason than it is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.  I’ve even begun having conversations with my children about the importance of listening well, with the hope they come to understand its value both to themselves and others.  It’s a simple thing that will set them apart and, I believe, make a difference in their lives, vocation, and ministries and service to others.

Without intention, it will…not…happen.

To some, I’m stating the obvious, what you already know and practice.  To others, consider this a gentle reality check to consider how well you’re listening to those you love and care about, or those with whom you come into contact through work or service.

A few steps to becoming an active listener:

Ask your family if you’re a good listener.  Give them permission to be beautifully, brutally honest.  Let the only consequence of their answers be that you become a better listener.

Look people in the eye when you’re in conversation.  I know, I know, you already know this!  But is this your practice?   It’s a challenge to maintain direct eye contact with people; once you begin paying attention, you’ll realize you look away more than you thought.  

My friend Stephanie is great at this.  My husband actually commented that she’s a great listener because she always looks you in the eye.  When I shared the compliment with her, she brushed it off as no big deal; but the thing is, it IS a big deal.

Put your phone down whenever possible.  There will always be a good excuse to keep your phone nearby when you’re on a date with your spouse or out with friends, but few things better demonstrate I love you and I like spending time with you than undivided attention.  Children of all ages know when you’re listening or only half-listening.

Because I have two in college, now more than ever, I’m conscious of our infrequent time together. I do not want a cell phone to rob us of one moment.  I’m afraid when they were younger, a lot of moments were unnecessarily stolen.

Hold your tongue.  Why is this one so hard?  It’s annoying when someone interrupts me before I finish a sentence, and yet I find myself doing the same thing too often.  But because I want to listen well, I’m working on this one.  I want to care enough about what others have to say actually to give them enough time to say it.

Be sensitive to what’s being said.  Sometimes those you’re with don’t need you to say a word.  That’s when active listening makes a huge difference–you’ll know they need you to give them the time and space to spill their insides.  Your only response might be to shake your head in empathy, to hold their hand, to hug them tight.

Be fully present.  Active listening tells the person you’re with, they matter.  When you don’t allow All Of The Distractions to yank your attention, they know it; they know the difference.

Do you think I’m overstating the obvious?  Have you seen how culturally we’ve relegated active listening to the sidelines?  What are some additional suggestions or practices you have for becoming a better listener?

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