Listen Up! Practical Help for Lousy Listeners

Are you a bad listener? What would your spouse or best friend or children say about you? People tend to think much more highly of themselves than they actually deserve.

So what would you say: Are you a good or bad listener?

There are several practices and traits that can derail good listening. Impatience leads to shoddy listening. An impatient listener is not able to appreciate or be fully engaged in her present circumstances. She is not willing to hear her friend out. She interrupts or cuts him off. In her impatience, she communicates that she doesn’t care about what her friend has to say.

Another killer of conversations is tiredness. In a fast-paced society, people don’t rest much. Little or no sleep means you’re already exhausted when you begin to talk, which doesn’t usually lead to true conversation. Think about your listening abilities during a Sunday morning sermon. How much do you zone out, especially when you’re bored with what the pastor is saying? It’s easy for the mind to wander to other things—work, what you’re doing that afternoon, a conversation with a friend that morning. The tendency to be easily distracted makes for bad listening.

Or you might tend to interrupt others before they finish talking. Your thought is so pressing—and your tongue is so loose—that you blurt things out before the other person is even done speaking. Impatience, tiredness, zoning out, interrupting—these are just a few of the things that can lead to poor listening.

Do any of these descriptions fit you?

Don’t Be a Fool

Consider the biblical picture of a bad listener—the proverbial fool.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Prov. 18:2)

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prov. 29:20)

A biblical fool is one who doesn’t listen and therefore doesn’t understand. Instead, he speaks too quickly. In Proverbs 18:2, the fool finds pleasure only in saying what he wants to say. Because of his pride or selfishness or lack of love, he doesn’t care about understanding. He is impulsive. He answers before he hears. Thus, according to Proverbs 18:13, such a person is deemed foolish and shameful. Or as one commentator put it, this impulsive fool is “stupid and a disgrace.”

Are you the proverbial fool? Be honest. If you are, you might need to confess your lack of patience, love, and understanding to the Lord (Ps. 51:3–4) and to those around you.

Profile of a Good Listener

Now contrast the proverbial fool with the advice of the apostle James:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19)

James’s encouragement is to be quick to hear and slow to speak—a disposition that evidences both wisdom and love.

The profile of a good listener is the opposite of the proverbial fool: patient, energetic, focused. He lets the other person finish without interrupting. Because he is eager to put others before himself, he listens and works hard to understand the other person. He doesn’t think so highly of himself that he regularly speaks before he hears.

Just think about Jesus. Think about his conversations. How engaged he seemed. How much he listened to others, and asked questions in response. How skilled he was at drawing others out, and communicating his sympathy for a person. What would Martha, or blind Bartimaeus, or the woman at the well, or the disciples, say about Jesus? Would they say he was a good listener? Would they say he cared about them and took the time to understand them? I think they would.

Do you want to be like the proverbial fool, or do you want to be like Jesus?

Pastor, Are You a Bad Listener?

Pastors are teachers and preachers. They regularly proclaim God’s Word and, along the way, often grow accustomed to being listened to. Every Sunday, church members sit in silence and listen to a monologue. God speaks through the instrument of a pastor, and the Word goes out to change hearts and minds. This is all good.

But transfer this setup into a counseling room, and things might not go so well. Pastors often expect that they will speak and others will listen. So, after a few minutes of conversation, the pastor might make a few assumptions, speak into a situation with great authority, quote a Bible passage or two to make his point, and then be done with the matter (and the person) for the time being.

Pastor, whom do you resemble in the counseling room: the proverbial fool or Jesus? As pastors, we must remember that good shepherding starts with knowing the sheep (John 10:3, 11, 14–15). Such knowledge requires a lot from us, including patience, careful listening, and true understanding.

So be slow to speak and quick to listen. Before you say anything, figure out what your member is struggling with and what’s motivating him to do what he’s doing. Only speak into his life after you’ve made sure you truly understand what he’s told you.

Ultimately, no matter how good or bad you currently are at it, listening is a skill you can grow in. But you’ll never do it apart from God’s strength (Eph. 6:10) and his grace (Rom. 15:15). Work hard at being a better listener, but remember God is at work in you to make you more like his Son (Phil. 2:12–13).

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article appeared at the Crossway Blog.

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