Words are vital because God has spoken to us through words. When we are reading and meditating on his Word, what are we doing? We’re hearing from him. When we listen to sermons, we are hearers of the Word of God. Yes, God wants talkers, but more than that, as David Powlison argues, he wants listeners. He wants people who not only listen, but who do so with their whole heart.
God wants people who not only listen, but who do so with their whole heart.
Most often, we grow by listening, not by talking. Consider nine ways to become a better listener.
1. Listen before you answer.
You want to hear what the other person is saying. Don’t be like Job’s friends, who apparently listened selectively. Listen well so you may respond with laser-focused words of life. Without what Ken Sande calls “waiting,” you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict and then make things worse by reacting inappropriately. It is critical to learn the lesson of Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
2. Don’t go numb.
My tendency, whether I am doing an interview for an article or performing a pastoral counseling session, is to let a mental fog envelop me and stop listening, especially when listening to an incessant talker. As Sande points out, the human mind can think at least four times faster than a person can talk, so our minds tend to get bored and look for something more to do, like rehearsing our responses, which short-circuits good listening.
3. Maintain regular eye contact.
Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone or the television or close the door if there is noise outside. Lean forward, which shows interest, and try to use soft facial expressions. A bored or angry look can shut down the other person. Nod your head occasionally and use verbal signals that indicate you’re still listening and following.
4. Don’t get irritated, especially if they are saying things you don’t like.
If you’re irritated, don’t give it away through facial expressions. God commands that we be patient with one another because he is patient with us.
5. Don’t let them chase rabbits.
Ask well-placed questions to put some guardrails on the discussion.
6. Seek clarification.
Ask questions like “Have I understood you accurately?” and then recount what you’ve understood them to say. This way, you can clear up misunderstandings and partial understandings, and glean further information.
7. Don’t let sinful talk repel you.
Once I was in a counseling session when the counselee (a non-Christian man seeking to be reconciled to his Christian wife) peppered his talk with F-bombs. I wasn’t necessarily surprised or offended by his use of profanity (after all, I grew up around baseball players and building contractors), but I was distracted and thrown off my counseling game. As David Powlison points out, “You will almost invariably hear sins in the process (of listening). You’ll hear bitterness, gossip, self-pity, false belief, rationalization, obsession, evasion, fabrication—the thousand tongues of foolish and empty talk.”
8. Agree as much as possible
This is a valuable tactic that Ken Sande recommends, one I’ve tried to use, particularly when the conversation is unpleasant or involves conflict. For example, you could say, “I can understand why you would be upset that we’ve made changes in the church music program,” or “You’re correct, I don’t have as much experience in this area as I’d like, and you do know much more about it than I do.” Agreeing, Sande writes,
doesn’t mean you abandon your beliefs, but rather that you acknowledge what you know is true before addressing points of disagreement. Agreeing with the person who is speaking will often encourage him or her to talk more openly and avoid unnecessary repetition. Agreeing is especially important when you have been in the wrong. . . . [It] can make the difference between an argument and a meaningful dialogue.
Such admissions also show a measure of humility that can encourage others to talk with you and use a more gracious tone, especially if they are criticizing you—a kind of talk we all find especially difficult to hear.
9. Listen to hear, not to correct, judge, or coach.
Whether you are a pastor or layperson, sometimes you just need to be with a hurting person and furnish them with a listening, sympathetic, or even empathetic ear.
Sometimes you just need to be with a hurting person and furnish them with a listening, sympathetic, or even empathetic ear.
About two years into my first full-time pastorate, a family in our church lost their infant grandson to crib death. Naturally, they were broken beyond words. My wife and I spent much of the next morning with them, and all I really did was pray with them when we first arrived and when we left—it was a Sunday morning, and I had to preach for our congregation. I wasn’t certain I had done anything to soothe their suffering other than to weep with them and hear their hurt.
Several weeks later they met with me and commended me for how I had ministered to them just by being there. “You’ve taught us about the sovereignty of God and how life in a fallen world is full of pain, and you’ve taught us about Christ’s suffering for us,” the grandmother said through tears. “You didn’t need to do that again, and you didn’t. You and Lisa were just there with us, hurting alongside us, and we were comforted by your presence and your prayers.”
As I try to teach my pastoral interns, sometimes you just need to be with people and say it best by saying nothing at all. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he didn’t tell Mary to stop crying, or that he was going to fix everything in a few minutes—even though he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with her.
Should I Have Listened More?
My father was a godly, wise man. He fought in World War II, made three jumps in combat, and won a Purple Heart and other medals for bravery. He was humble and slow to speak. People in our church and in our community listened to him. Dad died in 1991 when I was a senior in college. But one of the things I can still hear him saying to this day, if I close my eyes, is this: “Jeff, you will almost never regret having said nothing. It’s hard to sin verbally with your mouth closed.” That’s great advice. It’s Proverbs, James, Paul, and Jesus applied.