Like most husbands, when their wives ask them to read something, my heart rate instantly rose when my wife Susan suggested I read just three pages of a book – on listening.
I’m a terrible listener. But those three pages gave me hope and a specific plan to get better at a skill, scripture highly encourages.
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” James 1:19
So, if you or someone you know is listening challenged as I am, just ask them to read this blog, which is edited from a wonderful book entitled The Listening Life, by Adam McHugh (Intervarsity Press). Then buy this book!
Pushing the Arrow Good listening starts with the scandalous premise that this conversation is not about you. Allow me to repeat myself: this conversation is not about you. Yet everything in us wants to make it about ourselves. It is an ever-present temptation, even if we are not aware of it. Perhaps especially if we are not aware of it.
It is my aim to simplify the art of listening, the art of not making the conversation about you, as much as possible. Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation. It is a very smart, mind-reading arrow, and it swivels to point at whomever the attention in the conversation is focused on. To listen, we remind ourselves, is to pay focused and loving attention on another. So, as the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person. Encourage the other person to keep talking, to take an idea further, to go deeper into a story, memory or emotion. Then you’re listening. If you remember nothing else from this chapter remember this.
The problem with the arrow is that its gravitational pull is relentlessly in your direction. Just like a compass points due north, the arrow’s place of rest is over you. It wants to point at you, so that even when it is centered over the other person, it quivers, trying to return home. A good listener, therefore, must be ruthless in pushing the arrow in the direction of other person. During the course of a conversation you must swing it not once but repeatedly away from you.
Ask Questions The core question of listening conversation is, then, how can I keep the arrow pointed at the other person? The best way to push the arrow is through asking good, open-ended questions. An open question is one that does not have a yes or no answer; those questions are called closed-ended questions.
Closed question: Did you have a good weekend? [Possible answers: “yes” or “no.”]
Open question: How was your weekend? [Possible answers: “It was incredible because we catapulted over…” Or “It was terrible because this huge dragon…”]
Though useful for gathering and confirming information, a closed question has a way of limiting the conversation. It leaves the speaker with nowhere to go, and it twirls the arrow right back on the listener after it has been answered. An open question is an invitation, welcoming discussion and elaboration from the speaker. It gives the speaker the freedom to answer however she wants, or to not answer at all. An open question will get a person talking about himself, and if I’ve learned anything about listening, it’s that people like to talk about themselves.
A lot of people are good at asking the first question. However, it’s the second question that often unlocks the conversation. Most people are accustomed to the conversational pattern of back and forth, the talking tennis match, and so after they are finished speaking, they expect the other person to begin. But what if you take what they have just said and offer a follow-up question?
It is deceivingly simple, but I know of no better second question that “Can you tell me more about that?” You adjust it to fit the context and the topic, but that is its essence. Your wife comes home after a bad day, and after she shares why, instead of immediately talking about your day, you can ask, “Tell me more. Why did that interaction bother you so much?” Your son gets in trouble at school, and instead of immediately scolding him ask, in a non-shaming way, “How were you feeling when you did that?” If a person has a story to tell, a grievance to air, an idea to share, a confession to make, an emotion to vent or a secret to tell, a good listener will say, “Tell me more.”
Ask more questions Another way to push the arrow toward the other person is by answering a question with a question. If I have learned anything as a listener over the past fifteen years, it’s that people love to ask for advice, but when they ask for advice they don’t usually want it; instead, they want an opportunity to discuss their struggle. Every generic request for advice has a personal story or trouble behind it. If you dispense advice too quickly, you are not hearing them. A simple response of “Why do you ask?” will take the conversation to the level of motivation, which is where the true meaning lies. Generally speaking, the more you can uncover what the other person truly wants to talk about, the better the conversation will go.
Get your whole body into it! Finally, a way to keep the smart arrow hovering over the other person is through active listening. A passive listener offers little facial expression or responsiveness, staring blankly at the person speaking. Active listening acknowledges that a good conversation involves two engaged parties. In truth, the listener is probably working harder. To be an active listener is to visibly involve yourself in the interaction, helping the speaker to trust that you are present and engaged. The classic active listening expressions, in addition to good questions, or nod of the head, eye contact, sounds like “uh huh,” “hmm” or “really?” and an attentive posture, like leaning forward and facing the speaker. I like to compare active listening to what I’ve experienced at some Pentecostal churches, where the congregation will nudge the preacher forward with vocal responses like “Amen” and “Go on, preacher!” Active listening is a way of telling the speaker to go on. If you notice the speaker becoming more animated and alive in the conversation, you are practicing active listening. Keep going.
Active listing requires energy, which can be very difficult after a long day. Tiredness plays a significant factor in passive listening, which is a reason why I think it is most difficult to listen in our families. We are with our spouses and our children at our most tired moments of the day. It can be frustrating because we can spend all day listening to people that we may not be all the excited to listen to, and the when we are with the people we most want to listen to, we may lack the energy. Sometimes we need to be able to say, “I really want to hear this, but I am exhausted right now, and I can’t give you my full attention. Can I listen to you in the morning?” I am of the opinion that short spells of active listening are far more valuable than long periods of half-hearted listening.
Well, that’s about as much as I can share without violating copyright law. But seriously, after reading these pages, I meditated on them, then confessed my sin of generally wanting to be heard, more than listening to others. My prayer every morning has been, asking the Holy Spirit to help me push the arrow away from me, to either the other person or Jesus.
I bless God for you Susan! (and Adam)
How following Jesus works in real life.
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